While the Tampa Bay Rays finished off their sweep of the Houston Astros, the 2015 All-Star Futures Game began, giving top prospects from around baseball the chance to play in front of 40,000 people and be acknowledged for their talent. Two such minor leaguers came from the Rays system, left-hander Blake Snell and third baseman Richie Shaffer. Both delivered impressive days for the US team, although they also reminded us what they still need to work on before they are ready for the major leagues.
Snell entered the game in the sixth inning and tossed a perfect inning with two groundouts and a popout. He needed just 10 pitches, but even that limited number of offerings made it clear just how talented he is. The 22-year-old lefty reached as high as 94 MPH with his fastball, averaging 92.8 MPH on the five times he threw the pitch overall. He also threw three low-80’s changeups, and it was quite a weapon for him as he used it to induce all three of his outs. Snell also threw one slider in the low-80’s and one low-70’s show-me curveball.
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Snell only threw five strikes among his 10 pitches, and it is a little bit alarming that only two of his five fastballs were strikes. It was a good illustration of why command of his heater is Snell’s single biggest question moving forward in his career. At the same time, however, it is not as though he will have to be perfect. His changeup’s arm speed and movement play off his fastball extremely well while his two breaking balls represent a nice contrast. As long as he can establish his fastball as a strike a decent amount of the time, he has the ability to keep hitters off-balance time and again with his four-pitch arsenal. He will continue to put in the necessary work the remainder of the season to ensure that he will be able to do that in coming years.
Shaffer’s biggest impacts came during batting practice. He hit five home runs, two of which ended up in the second deck of the left field seats at Great American Ballpark. Shaffer’s power was exclusively to his pull side while other players were able to spray the ball around more, but his power was extremely impressive as he hit some of the longest blasts of anyone. Then, once the game began, Shaffer continued to demonstrate his power, hitting the ball to the track on a pair of occasions.
It would have been nice if either of his hits had gone out for a home run, but Shaffer’s home run total on the minor league season (21) reminds us that he has a lot more than warning track power. In his first at-bat, he took a trio of fastballs out of the zone to get ahead in the count before getting one he liked and drilling it nearly 400 feet. Then, in his fourth plate appearance, the count was even after a 99 MPH fastball and 101 MPH heater from Frankie Montas when he saw a hittable changeup and just missed it as he flew out to deep left field.
Shaffer looked good against fastballs and changeups on the day, but the negative for him was how badly he fared against sliders. He saw five of them, whiffing at four while taking the other for a strike. Shaffer has a disciplined approach and knows the strike zone well, but his pitch recognition on breaking balls continues to be a work in progress, leading to strikeouts. It is OK if Shaffer swings and misses given his power, but if he was in the majors right now, pitchers would rarely show him fastballs and instead pound him with curveballs and sliders. Shaffer has to do a better job laying off of them for his Triple-A output to translate to the middle of the Rays’ order.
Prospect followers among Tampa Bay Rays fans have been raving about Snell and Shaffer all season, and it is nice to see people throughout baseball understanding exactly why. It will be exciting to see both of them play the remainder of the season and continue to rise both as Rays prospects and as options for the major league roster. Snell represents the next high-upside pitcher set to join the Rays while Shaffer could provide with the Rays with another power bat as soon as a few weeks from now.