ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays, in their never-ending quest to find different paths to success, will walk down one less traveled with Brendan McKay, a left-handed pitcher and first baseman from Louisville whom they selected Monday with the fourth overall pick in the draft.
McKay, who excels on the mound and at the plate, will have the opportunity to pursue both when he begins his pro career in the organization.
"Why not?" general manager Erik Neander said.
The Rays had McKay ranked as a top-four talent as a pitcher and a first baseman.
"At this point," Neander said, "our plan is to continue to let him explore that, to let him put a cap on what he can and cannot do."
McKay, 21, is thrilled. He said he is willing to take the two-way path as far as he can through the organization.
"If a guy can figure out how to handle his arm and his body and not get worn down and stay healthy and whatnot, I think it can add a whole new level to baseball," McKay said. "Having two guys in one who can do both adds a lot of potential to your team in many ways."
McKay, mentioned as the possible top overall pick in the draft, said he had an offer from the Twins, who held the No. 1 pick.
"They offered a (contract) number that we felt we could get a better offer from another team or whatnot," he said. "It ultimately came down to another team was able to give a better offer, so we went with that. I'm happy with the way things worked out. You got a good deal, and you got a great organization to work with."
The slot for the fourth overall pick is $6.15 million. When asked if he thought they could sign McKay, Rays scouting director Rob Metzler said, "We're optimistic."
It's likely the sides have agreed to a deal, though McKay can't sign because Louisville is headed to the College World Series this weekend. The deadline to sign draft picks is July 7.
McKay said questions about his ability and desire to continue to play both positions were popular as he talked to teams leading up to Monday.
"I said I want to do both as long as I could," McKay said. "Obviously, some teams would be willing to do it, and some teams were stuck on one or the other and didn't want to take that risk.
"It all just came down to who wanted to say yes. If one team wanted me to pick one and stick with that, I would have had no issue with it."
McKay has hit .343 with 17 home runs and 56 RBIs this season. He is 10-3 with a 2.34 ERA in 16 starts with 140 strikeouts in 104 innings.
Metzler said that if you polled the Rays' scouts about McKay, they would be split on which position he should play.
"On the mound, it's an easy delivery. He's able to throw strikes," Metzler said. "He can spin the ball well. He throws with velocity. I think it's a good combination of power and feel on the mound. At the plate, it's a smooth swing, it's a power bat, and he's a good defensive player at first base."
Metzler said the Rays will handle McKay with "tender loving care." Because he has spent the spring pitching for Louisville with more games to come in the College World Series, the Rays will limit his time on the mound this summer. They will work out a schedule next season that won't tax him either as a pitcher or a first baseman.
"At some point down the road, maybe the game of baseball will slow down his development path in one of those directions," Metzler said, "but we're going to let the game of baseball determine that."
The Rays used the 31st overall pick, the first of the Competitive Balance Round A, on Oregon State right-hander Drew Rasmussen.
Rasmussen, the 98th overall prospect by mlb.com, had Tommy John surgery in 2016. He was 3-0 this year with a 2.83 ERA in 212/3 innings. He was 7-4 with a 2.80 ERA in 106 innings as a freshman.
Rasmussen's post-surgery fastball is in the 92-96 mph range.
"When he was able to show us health and competitive spirit back on the mound for the Beavers, it put us in a really good position to make the selection," Metzler said.
Rasmussen said his velocity has returned, but he is still working on his "touch and feel" of his offspeed pitches.
"That's where we are right now," he said, "trying to tighten up the screws."
With the 40th pick and the fourth of the second round, the Rays selected California prep right-hander Michael Mercado, a Stanford commit.
The 6-foot-4 Mercado has a fastball that tops out at 92. He also has a good changeup that he throws from a three-quarters delivery and a slider, and he can throw all of his pitches for strikes.
"He's got a really good feel for pitching," Metzler said. "He's got a fast arm. We've seen velocity. We've seen spin."
Metzler said he's confident the organization can sign Mercado away from Stanford.
"It's definitely going to be a big decision," Mercado said. "I'm not an end-all, be-all Stanford guy like some of the guys that go in. If my opportunities are better playing minor-league baseball than they are playing college baseball then that's definitely what I'll go with. I've just always looked at it like that. I've never really leaned one way or the other. I never completely invested to go into college or even the minor leagues, but this is my dream, so I'm obviously going to follow that and try very hard to get to the highest level. If that means I have to skip Stanford, that's what I've got to do."