Monday, June 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Can the Rays’ Brendan McKay two-way experiment work? Well …

PORT CHARLOTTE — Far from the circus atmosphere surrounding Shohei Ohtani's breathlessly anticipated and highly scrutinized performance in Angels camp, the guy who already is a successful two-way pro player in the states toils in relative anonymity on the back fields of the Rays spring complex.

And Brendan McKay is quite okay with that.

Someday — and he and his bosses are adamant that it's a matter of when  and not if —  McKay will be the one, albeit reluctantly, in the spotlight.

Pitching and playing a position on an everyday schedule in the  major leagues. Adding his name to, maybe atop, a short list of players who've successfully pulled off this daily double in modern times. Changing not just how the Rays play games with essentially the benefit of an extra man on the roster, but perhaps the entire industry.

"That," McKay said, "is the ultimate goal."

Think about it, and why should dual duty be a big deal? Almost every talented kid does it in youth leagues and even into high school, often pitching and playing shortstop or centerfield. But when they get to college or the pros, they are routinely herded, the province being they can't do all the work needed to play well at both.

So it follows that the idea of someone actually being both a pitcher and a position player/DH (first base in McKay's case) in pro ball, and especially the big leagues, is a very complicated issue, fraught with concerns, questions and high stakes, given that the Rays gave him a $7 million bonus.

At this early stage, McKay, 22, has done well, making a solid debut last summer with short-season Class A Hudson Valley after being the No. 4 pick in the draft. A bigger challenge is ahead this season, as he faces the rigors of a 140-game full minor-league season.

So here are five topics of conversation:

1. Why is he doing this?

McKay would ask why not. To him, this isn't a matter of trying to be different, but of doing the same thing he's done all along.

"As much as people kind of want to make a big deal about it to me, it's just what I've been doing for 18 years or whatever, since I started playing," he said.

The difference is that McKay got to keep doing it. Through Blackhawk High in western Pennsylvania, through three years at the University of Louisville, and through his first pro season with the Rays.

The point of demarcation came during his junior season in high school when several Division 1 college teams recruited him with the rare promise of letting him play both ways. "It kind of showed up that, 'Hey, you've got something special going on,'" McKay said.

And when he not only kept doing it, but starred both ways at Louisville, there was further validation going into the draft as some teams saw him as a first-round talent as a pitcher, others as a first baseman. The always creative, often-outside-the-box-thinking Rays saw no reason to stop having him do both.

"It's simple," farm director Mitch Lukevics said. "He did it. He did it. This young man has done it at his highest level of competition to date. Everybody else in the world says, "I can hit and I can pitch,' but they've never done it to the degree that Brendan McKay has. And he did it so well he was college player of the year."

2. What is the biggest challenge ahead?

The talent gets better and the game faster as you play at higher levels, but most vexing for McKay and the Rays just may be playing every day.

Consider that Louisville, in a march to the College World Series, played 65 games in 126 days. With cautious handling after that season, the Rays had McKay play 42 games in 54 days last summer at Hudson Valley. Now he is headed to either Class A Bowling Green (Ky.) or staying in Port Charlotte with the advanced Class A Stone Crabs, where they play 140 games in 151 days.

"No disrespect to college baseball, but it's more-or-less club baseball," Lukevics said. "We're playing every day. There's an adjustment to pro ball, and he did a marvelous job. … Now this is a whole different game, a whole different level. He's going to a full-season club. Let's see how he can handle it."

A key is structured scheduling, detailing what he does on specific days and when he does nothing, factoring in time for recovery and training room treatment. Working off what McKay did in Louisville and with his input, the Rays came up with a plan last summer where he started once a week, played first three days, DH'd the day before and after his start and was off the day he threw his long bullpen session. A slightly modified schedule is being worked out for this longer season.

Everything McKay does is pretty much mapped out based on his pitching program, from bullpen sessions to batting practices. On the first day of minor-league workouts this month, McKay warmed up with the pitchers and threw a bullpen session, headed over to the fields to take batting practice, then rejoined the pitchers for conditioning.

McKay, who said the only issue last year was dealing with "the wear and tear on your body," welcomes the structure. College teammates, such as new Rays minor-leaguer Nick Solak, used to call him "The Machine" because of how he handled it.

"Just to give me kind of an idea of how to plan," McKay said. "You kind of know yourself what you're doing. And how to recover and how to plan your whole time here. How to make your body feel at its best every day."

3. What else are the Rays doing?

In addition to monitoring how much McKay is on the field, the Rays are also limiting what he does when out there, specifically to limit stress on his valuable left arm. That includes the obvious, such as installing a six-man rotation to create an extra day (and sometimes two) between starts and limiting throws to other bases during infield work. Further, they're also discussing changing the responsibilities on relays so, for example, on a ball hit into the rightfield corner he would cover second rather than potentially have to make a high-leverage throw to third or home. Even the decision on where to assign McKay is being closely analyzed, weighing the potential for weather disruptions to his schedule, travel and level of competition.

4. What's he do better?

Thus far, both Rays personnel and opposing scouts consider him more advanced on the mound, and he further impressed Thursday in a dazzling spring debut. His initial pro results at Hudson Valley show that, with a 1.80 ERA, 0.75 WHIP (walks and hits per inning) and dowdy 21 strikeouts in 20 innings, compared to a more pedestrian .232 average, .725 OPS and 22.15 percent strikeout ratio. McKay said that has been the case since he started playing high school ball, but is confident his bat will catch up to his arm. "It's a little easier to make changes (in pitching)," he said. "Hitting takes time and adjustments and everything. Obviously you get a little more instruction here (in pro ball)."

5. What can go wrong?

As much as the Rays are doing to mitigate the possibility, injury is the biggest concern, and obviously McKay is subject to double exposure.

Beyond the normal risks for any pitcher or hitter, especially the young ones who consider them invincible, the Rays have to be very proactively cautious. Any kind of tweak or  tightness that a normal position player might play through has to be assessed so that it doesn't impact McKay's pitching mechanics, and normal post-pitching soreness has to be factored into his daily duties. Obviously with the size of the investment, there is a lot of lose if hurt his golden arm getting a meaningless at-bat in a Class A game.

Stubbornness, from either side, could be a close second.

That is an element not just in the overall commitment to prove this can be done, that McKay is more a legit two-way player than a show pony, but also in advancing him through the system.

Say McKay continues to be a better pitcher, to the point, even late this season, where he is ready for a promotion to Double-A, but he is still a Class A-level hitter.

Do the Rays hold him back so his bat hopefully catches up and potentially slow his pitching progress, even delaying his arrival in the majors? Or do they play to his strengths and move him up, gambling the failure at the plate doesn't take a toll, especially mentally. Or do they decide then to end the experiment and have  him focus on  what he does best?

"That would be a tough thing," McKay said. "Being so fresh into it, you'd want to keep doing it and see how it works out. See if I can take it to another level, ride it out until a true point where it's got to be cut."

That said, McKay acknowledges the choice eventually may have to be made, and possibly made for him.

"Personally I want to do it as long as it takes me," he said. "But I'd obviously be open to anybody that says, "Hey, this is what we're seeing.' … So I would take their insights."

Lukevics won't even play the what-if game, insisting the Rays are committed long-term to seeing this through, and that McKay has the talent and the intangibles to make it happen.

"This kid, he's intelligent, he's disciplined, he has a really good attitude, a good work ethic," Lukevics said. "You can see why he's had success and why what we're doing can be successful. …

"This is absolutely no gimmick. This is for real. This is every day, seven days a week that we're getting Brendan McKay prepared to take on a full season and do both, as a starting pitcher and first baseman, with some DH. … We're absolutely pumped about it. And we feel very strongly he is the right guy for it."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays

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