It was your typical desert evening in Scottsdale Arizona. Decently hot as the sun set, all the metal chairs frigid by the eighth inning, and the Peoria Javelinas were at Talking Stick to play the Salt River Rafters - home of the Rays prospects in the Arizona Fall League.
Out of the eight Rays prospects on the roster, two were in the starting lineup: LHP Grayson Garvin and 3B Richie Shaffer (slotted at first base).
I got a chance to talk with Richie Shaffer before the game, and I asked if first base was something new this off season. He mentioned playing the position often enough in college, but pointed to a few reasons for taking up the "new" position in the Arizona Fall League. He spoke to the value of getting more at bats with appreciation, given the stacked roster at the Salt River Rafters, and mentioned how the Rays are somewhat blocked at third base in the majors, but most of all he spoke of lineup creation.
"The Rays value flexibility."
Shaffer spoke emphatically. He clearly recognized the value in being able to play multiple positions on the field, and seemed genuinely interested in improving his defense wherever that may be. It was all the eagerness you want to see in a top prospect.
Shaffer at the plate, however, left something to be desired. The first round pick out of Clemson that was billed as a power hitter seemed passive at the plate. He went down looking on a border line call his first time up, but did well to foul off a few pitches when the pitches came in. The second time around he offered at pitches inside and below the zone and either wasn't swinging with great bat speed, or was just behind each of the pitches from the new pitcher. He was fouling off, not punishing anything. The at-bat ended with a frustrated free-swing at a pitch outside and in the dirt for his second strikeout.
His third at bat came with two outs and a runner on third. After taking a first pitch strike on a fastball low in the zone, he laid off a fastball and two breaking balls before making contact outside the zone -- a flare to shallow center. Unfortunately, the second baseman was playing in the outfield grass. He'd get one more chance in the eighth, and after taking a few pitches hit a grounder to the second baseman. Great contact, opposite field, just right to the defender.
Based on four at-bats on one evening, I can't say much definitively, but it would appear Shaffer has a semblance of patience that he was trying to flesh out. His default in each at-bat had the goal of keeping the bat on the shoulder, in a positive sense, only swinging when he had a pitch to hit. Most of the time, he seemed to be behind on the pitches he tried, but not in any way that had me worried. He's a power hitter practicing patience, I can't get mad at that.
Meanwhile, I was thrilled to have Rays left handed prospect Grayson Garvin on the mound, and watching him warm up was great fun before the game. Garvin and Blue Jays catcher Derrick Chung (5'11" with a great approach to the game) played long toss for a good ten minutes before they turned to the bullpen, where Garvin impressed with his approach.
Garvin was a former Tommy John candidate in 2009 before healing after extended rest, but later succumbed to elbow surgery in 2011 after a poor showing at Class-A Charlotte. The first two years after elbow surgery are crucial to a player's development, and watching Garvin pitch looked effortless.
I've never seen a pitcher throw with such consistency live, from the arm slot and angle, to the front leg's placement and bend. When he entered the game, it was no different. He was replicating his delivery with poise and accuracy in his motion. I loved every pitch.
The second play of the game involved both the Rays starters, when San Diego's Cory Spangenberg hit a slow tapper up the right field line, Grayson was able to field in cleanly but his throw to first base was both sharply thrown and at the shoelaces. Shaffer scooped it cleanly on what still felt like a bang-bang play for the out.
Garvin averaged about 13 seconds between pitches in the bullpen and in the game, but when a runner was on first base, he slowed down to about 24 seconds per pitch. After watching him burn through his warm up with precision in the pen, and focus on the mound, I wondered if having a baserunner was shaking up his game.
In the third inning, Garvin allowed a triple to the lead off hitter Chris Taylor, which the diving center fielder missed on full stretch. The ball rolled to a stop at the wall, allowing three bases to Taylor and a runner to score. The scoring run had been on base from a fielders choice when the Rafters couldn't turn a double play on a broken bat bouncer to short. Richie Shaffer received the ball from second well enough, but the throw was merely late.
Following the RBI triple, Garvin allowed a laid a liner up the middle to score a second run before a meeting at the mound. He followed settles down, worked a flyball to left-center, and then started working quickly again for the third out. The now-unchecked-runner advanced with a great jump, made it second with plenty of time, and then advanced home on a lofted hit to the right field corner. He might have scored, too.
Gunning it from second base on a slow roller that got between the fielders on the left side, Chung laid a stellar tag on the runner's bent knee with a windmill swipe as the runner tried to slide around home plate. The throw from left field by Colorado's Tim Wheeler (cannon!) made it a bang-bang play.
By the fourth inning I was getting frustrated, if only because Shaffer was getting nothing his way. By the time a great double play ball was put into action, the runner landed on the second baseman's ankles, halting his throw and allowing another run to score in the fourth. Garvin was getting BABIP'd by balls hit seemingly a mere foot out of reach of every fielder, including himself. But the approach was there.
Garvin was primarily throwing a fastball at 91-93, and was working a cutter between 85-88, which he one scout described as having "good action." In fact, he said Garvin looked really good, in spite of the results. "It's all about the process." I smiled at that.
It's a shame Garvin didn't have a better outing. Two starts ago, on October 9th, he'd thrown five shut out innings with five strikeouts and two base runners. The following outing was Oct. 16, which saw four hits, three walks, and three earned runs with four strikeouts.
Garvin would get pulled after loading the bases with his first walk of the game, on one out in the fourth. His final line: 3.1 IP, 9 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, and a great delivery. The frame would finish with Shaffer finally in action, leaning across the bag and cleanly gloving the final out on a decent stretch and saving extra earned runs.
Mike Montgomery took the mound with a three run deficit in the sixth inning, with all the hopes of improving his control on his shoulders. He throws overhand (1 o'clock) and with plenty of rosin. He walked his first batter and neither checked him at first or slowed down his pace.
After a liner to right field, Montgomery got his first out in a poorly checked swing on a change up in the dirt. In fact, it was almost entirely off-speed stuff that couldn't stay in the zone. A liner cut above the third baseman's glove to load ‘em up, and Montgomery followed by generating two ground balls. The first was turned slowly, getting no one out, but the second involved a bad jump and a slow runner on the offensive side. Shaffer had to get low to receive the double play ball, but had no difficulty.
Montgomery returned, and tried to field a chopped fastball on his first pitch of the inning that bounced off his shoulder (to no one), allowing the first base runner. He worked a fine changeup in the zone for a strikeout (foul, swinging) before the Shaffer received another groundball out -- with Shaffer fielding another low throw from second. He'd started leaning well forward, but had to adjust and was able to pull back and take it at the shoelaces.
I did not come away wow'd by Montgomery's performance, as most anything outside his heater took a long while to settle into the zone. His motion includes a tumble off the mound that I believe was inconsistent from pitch to pitch, and I was somewhat uncomfortable with his arm slot, but he did one thing that gave me significant hope for the future: Montgomery seemed quite capable of generating groundballs and chopped pitches, to which his repertoire of fastball-changeup-curveball lends itself well.
When Montgomery was a highly touted prospect in the Royals system, his groundball specialty was part of the allure. After recovering from a shoulder injury this April, the Rays had yet to witness that ability at its full potential, while Montgomery was replicating or posting slightly better numbers than last season.
Combine a high groundball rate with his marginal improvements, and Montgomery might be up for a big year.
The Rafters were able to put two runners on with no outs in the ninth inning, starting the batter after Shaffer. A double play and a ground out closed the door 5-3.
One more story to tell:
Houston's left handed pitcher Alex Sogard was the starting pitcher for the visiting Javelinas, and he showed some excellent defensive instincts. In the first inning a liner was shot toward him, glove side and about a foot from his hip, and he snagged it like Indiana Jones reaches for his gun. Garvin had a similarly hit ball come his way in the fourth, but couldn't get the glove down to belt level in time.
In the following inning, the Rafters DH hit a liner directly at Sogard, and it would have made contact with his collarbone if the pitcher hadn't gotten his glove up in time. Sogard went to his knees on the mound with bright eyes, but he looked exhilarated - all smiles, waving everyone back to their positions. Two possibly scary moments, and he made them look like nothing out of the ordinary.
Shaffer showed excellent mobility in his reaches across the bag and crouching low to receive poorly thrown balls. There weren't many opportunities for him to flash glove work, but his receiving skills were excellent through and through. He as always been a guy who prides himself on defense (and power hitting), so to see former translate well across the diamond provides optimism for his development.
Shaffer is listed as a first baseman on the Salt River Rafters roster, and currently has three walks in six games. He held a 6.9% walk rate last season, mostly at Class-A Charlotte.
Thankfully, Garvin and Montgomery both showed me what I wanted to see.
The former had a fluid motion that he was able to replicate without any inconsistencies. His pitches were lively coming across the plate, and after missing 2012 to elbow surgery, showed promise that he has a solid foundation to develop on.
The latter showcased an ability to use his pitches to generate an out, even when control seemed askew. For Montgomery to succeed at the major league level, he will need to be able to get guys out and/or leave them on base. Returning to his tendency as a groundball pitcher will help his game greatly next season.