NEW YORK – Justin Shafer arrived at the visitor’s clubhouse Sunday morning, parked his equipment bag and suitcase in some empty space and plopped himself down on a couch while waiting for someone to assign him a locker. As his new Toronto Blue Jays teammates came by and offered congratulations on the promotion, a nameplate with his name, No. 66, and a team logo was installed above a vacant stall, a moment the right-hander watched intently.
“Everything has been surreal,” says Shafer. “It’s obviously been a dream since I was a little kid, so it’s pretty nuts. Obviously being at Yankee Stadium makes it even crazier.”
The whirlwind from when he was first tapped on the shoulder while eating with the triple-A Buffalo Bisons on Saturday night and told he was going to The Show, to his debut in the Bronx with a scoreless inning of work offered lots of validation for the 25-year-old from Lake Wales, Fla.
A talented outfielder and pitcher in high school, Shafer was also the starting quarterback for the Lake Wales Highlanders, and when it came to decide on his future he had options to continue in either sport. He was torn between the two, eventually deciding to attend the University of Florida, where he played 144 games in the field and appeared in 33 on the mound, prompting the Blue Jays to select him in the eighth round of the 2014 draft.
“That was a hard choice,” he says of his choices out of high school. “I had quite a few offers for football. I’m sure if you asked certain people, they would probably have said I was better at football, but obviously baseball is what I ultimately chose and it’s worked out.”
The timing is good, too, for Shafer, who emerged as the Bisons closer after a late May promotion from double-A New Hampshire, excelling in the role with a 2.45 ERA and 15 saves in 32 appearances with Buffalo.
His promotion to the Blue Jays comes in an hour of need, but 40-man decisions loom in the off-season and he has the chance now to keep his place over the winter, when GM Ross Atkins will need to ensure the right players are protected from exposure in the Rule 5 draft.
Others like Fisher Cats ace Jordan Romano, trade deadline acquisitions Forrest Wall, Jacob Waguespack and Corey Copping, 2015 first-round pick Jon Harris and tenacious outfielder Jonathan Davis are among those who will also merit consideration.
Shafer fits the mould of the type of relief commodity teams across the game are coveting these days. Against the Yankees on Sunday, he averaged 93.5 m.p.h. with his fastball and topped out at 94.7, working in four sliders among his 22 pitches that generated two whiffs and a base hit allowed.
He’s still relatively new to relieving, making the conversion at the beginning of the 2017 season after “back-to-back not-too-great years as a starter.”
During his pre-season meeting with the player development department, he was asked in which role he wanted to continue his career.
“I pretty much said whatever is going to get me to the big leagues the quickest is what I want to do,” says Shafer. “They said, ‘OK, we’re thinking we might move you to the bullpen,’ I said all right, and that was pretty much the extent of it. I didn’t really have a preference either way, it was whatever gave me the best opportunity to make it up there the quickest.”
Though he started at single-A Dunedin last year, Shafer was quickly promoted to New Hampshire where he spent most of the season, touching Buffalo at the end. He cemented his gains at double-A early this season before moving up to the Bisons, where catcher Danny Jansen described him as one of the club’s most reliable relievers.
Getting accustomed to the brief recovery periods relievers face – his first back-to-back and three-games-in-four-days experiences have come this year – has been the primary challenge for Shafer, who has really taken to the mental side of the role.
“Relieving fits my personality a bit more,” he says. “It brings out the football side of me, a little bit more fiery, because you’re down to the late innings of the game, you have more of a direct impact right then on the outcome, versus as a starter you have five, six, seven innings at the beginning of the game. You get more of an adrenalin rush at the end of the game like that.”
Beyond Ken Giles, Ryan Tepera and Joe Biagini there’s very little certainty in the Blue Jays bullpen for 2019, so if Shafer performs, the opportunity to pitch in leverage is there. There will be lots of sifting through the sand to form a bullpen between now and next season for the front office, and calling up Shafer, with others still to come, gives the Blue Jays a head start on the process.