With David DeJesus now a member of the Los Angeles Angels, the Tampa Bay Rays have an opening in their outfield. Desmond Jennings is expected to take his spot when he returns in a few weeks, but in the meantime, the Rays need a different player as a placeholder. Their first fill-in was actually catcher Bobby Wilson, but Wilson’s call-up should be an extremely temporary move. The Rays have no need for three catchers, but they called up Wilson so they could pinch-hit for Rene Rivera even though they were playing Curt Casali at DH yesterday.
The three players who could be more permanent options are Grady Sizemore, Mikie Mahtook, and Richie Shaffer. Of the three, Shaffer is the most exciting by a wide margin. The Rays’ first round pick in 2012, Shaffer delivered inconsistent results for years before breaking out this season after being promoted to Triple-A. He now has a .261/.348/.594 line in 207 plate appearances, striking out a lot but also walking a good amount and hitting for prolific power. He has played in just 52 of Durham’s 105 games because he started the year at Double-A yet his 16 homers are tied for third in the International League.
The Rays wouldn’t promote him except to play everyday, but there is playing time available. As we have discussed, Shaffer could replace James Loney against left-handed pitchers and could play against righties at DH with Jaso in left field. Especially with the Rays set to face lefties Eduardo Rodriguez and Wade Miley in their weekend series with the Red Sox, Shaffer’s righty bat could be a nice addition. They do need to clear a 40-man roster spot to accommodate him, but they need to add him to the 40-man after the season anyway and they actually have an open spot right now.
The counterargument against promoting Shaffer is that he isn’t ready offensively given his 28% strikeout rate at Triple-A Durham, he can’t play the outfield yet, and you would be burning an option for no reason. The fact that he can’t play the outfield is annoying because John Jaso isn’t a natural outfielder himself, but the Rays will always have at least one of Jaso, Kevin Kiermaier, and Joey Butler on their bench anyway. That is good enough, especially given that Shaffer (who has the requisite defensive chops), Logan Forsythe, and Tim Beckham can all take flyballs there, with Forsythe having played there before.
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In terms of the option, Shaffer is good enough to potentially last from now until Jennings returns, but if Shaffer gets demoted at that point and then starts 2016 back in the minors, he would suddenly be down to only one option in 2017. However, Jennings is expected to come back in mid-August, so Shaffer wouldn’t end up spending 20 days in the minors before returning on September 1st and therefore wouldn’t burn an option. Unless he is a total flop and is demoted before August 12th, the option wouldn’t matter. Really, the only valid reason for the Rays to leave Shaffer in the minors is if they believe that he isn’t ready and would simply lose confidence and be sent back down quickly if he is promoted to the majors. Otherwise, he should be the guy.
If not Shaffer, should the Rays pick Sizemore or Mahtook? The fact that the Rays are facing two lefties seems to be a point in Mahtook’s favor, but do the Rays really need another right-handed bat? If the Rays go with an all-righty lineup of Joey Butler, Brandon Guyer, and Steven Souza Jr. from left to right in the outfield, Evan Longoria, Asdrubal Cabrera (switch-hitter batting right), Tim Beckham, and Logan Forsythe on the infield with Rene Rivera at catcher and Curt Casali at DH, then they would have lefty hitters John Jaso, Kevin Kiermaier, and James Loney on their bench without a single righty bat.
Starting Kiermaier or Loney would give the Rays one righty bat on their bench, but that makes it pretty clear that they should have Mahtook to give them two lefties and two righties. The argument against that is that Mahtook has suffered through a poor season at Triple-A and it doesn’t make sense to take him out of regular playing time to be a bench guy. On the other hand, we are only talking about three days, and the Rays could even start him over Butler in their outfield against lefties if they like, at least for one of the games.
Against right-handed starters, meanwhile, the Rays’ bench will be Butler, one of Tim Beckham, Rene Rivera, Curt Casali, and whoever they call up. Butler, Beckham, Rivera, and Casali are all righty hitters, so it would clearly be to their benefit to have the lefty Sizemore on their bench.
With all of this in mind, it looks like the Rays’ choice for their open roster spot comes down to either Shaffer from now until Jennings returns (and maybe for the remainder of the season if he plays well) or Mahtook on Friday and then Sizemore on Monday or Tuesday. We know that Shaffer has the vote of Tampa Bay Rays fans, and it will be interesting to get insight into what the Rays think of him as they decide whether to promote him.
Quick Update: As noted by Marc Topkin and others, the Rays are also likely to face lefties when they take on the Chicago White Sox, so Mahtook could last with the team until the end of that series.