The Rays have a problem, and it’s name is Richie Shaffer. We don’t really know what he is at the major league level, and we may have a hard time figuring that out.
A third baseman by trade, Shaffer is blocked by Evan Longoria. It’s possible that Shaffer could man a passable first base, but there he may be blocked by Brad Miller, who plays better overall when he remains in the infield.
The Rays may be able to make use of Shaffer next season as a designated hitter, but he’s not the prototypical slugger. He’s a kid, and he loses value (as well as offensive output) by not playing the field.
To know what the Rays have in Shaffer, they need him to get major league reps. No more Triple-A nonsense, no more tinkering with his swing. The former first round draft choice is ready for the majors, but he has no ideal place to go on the roster. The Rays could trade him, but again, it’s hard to value what he may become.
Baseball has long relied on the Rule 5 draft to make room for players who should be in the majors but that are being kept off the team’s 40-man roster. A rival team can steal a player that’s not protected, but they must utilize them on the starting 25-man roster all season, otherwise the player returns to his original team.
This is a terrible system.
Baseball teams are generally wise enough to protect the majority of soon-to-be major league players, and the players who do get selected — such as Tyler Goeddel or Joey Rickard, two Rays prospect taken this season — are often still prospects with little overall value to contribute.
Unsurprisingly, Goeddel and Rickard have each contributed negative WAR while they are forced to remain in the majors with their respective teams. They might have a major league profile, but they will likely need more time in the minors next season to iron things out.
Consequently, not only may each player have their development cycles thrown off track, but the acquiring teams have been forced to carry sub-optimal player to make the acquisition stick. That’s not great for the Orioles, who are ostensibly in the playoff hunt, but are forced to keep Rickard on the roster.
Furthermore, when the season does end, the Rays will get a mere $50,000 for their trouble of losing a major league prospect. That value alone shows how antiquated this process has become, and it’s time for it to be replaced.
The Loan System
There is a possible world in which baseball teams adopt a system of loaning players for one season at a time, solving several of the problems with the Rule 5 highlighted above.
Imagine a scenario in which the Orioles are in need of a left fielder, like this season began, but where they could borrow a player much closer to the majors than Joey Rickard. Maybe a veteran being forced out of his starting position (like Desmond Jennings), or a prospect who might have had a few call-ups, but was protected on the 40-man roster when the Rule-5 draft occurred.
For example, Rays outfielder Mikie Mahtook has shown major league competence, but was blocked by Brandon Guyer and Desmond Jennings when the season began. Mahtook would have been just the sort of adept prospect the Orioles were looking for when they turned to Joey Rickard.
The Rays could have sent Mahtook to the Orioles to get a season of major league time without having to toil in the minors, while also retaining Joey Rickard in their system where he needed more time to develop. At the end of the season, the rights to Mahtook would transfer back to the Rays, but one might assume a trade or sale could be worked out if the stint is successful.
Tampa Bay keeps both contracts, both players get a chance to play at the level that best suits their development, and the Orioles get a far better player to contribute in their own playoff hunt.
Shaffer and Mahtook could both find themselves in similar places next season. Instead of the Rays having to hoard their best prospects on the 40-man roster without room to deploy them at the major league level, why not free up the system?
Player loans allow all participants a better opportunity to play ball and contribute at the most successful level.
The sending team benefits by retaining a player contract while giving them major league reps their development or experience dictates. The receiving team fills an area of need without having to execute a high risk trade for an unknown asset. The player gains major league reps he otherwise would not have.
The loan system is common sense.