ST. PETERSBURG — LHP Jake McGee remembers two years ago when he and his buddy, RHP Wade Davis, were sitting side-by-side in lockers at Progress Energy Park during their first spring training.
They were two of the Rays' top prospects and expecting to soon compete for spots in the big-league rotation.
But while Davis was making a splash late last season with his first big-league starts, McGee was still working his long way back from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in July 2008.
Now, McGee feels he's back to 100 percent. He said he's throwing 95 mph, and his changeup is better than ever. The Sparks, Nev., native is eager to show just that in spring training and said he's being told that the Rays would like to get him some work as a back-of-the-bullpen type guy.
"I'd like that role a lot, actually," he said. "Just the adrenaline going out and knowing I have only one inning for three outs. Pitch for pitch, I can give it all I got."
Though Rays executive VP Andrew Friedman said they haven't given up on McGee as a starter, he acknowledges he has "the upside to pitch really well in the back part of a game." No one is anointing McGee the future closer; it's too early to predict that. But McGee is willing to give the bullpen a shot.
"This will be a defining year for Jake," said Mitch Lukevics, Rays director of minor-league operations. "Depending on how he does and how he responds will determine his role in the future."
Lukevics, who worked for years in the Yankees minor-league system, noted that Mariano Rivera had to overcome a similar injury earlier in his career. Rivera entered the big leagues as a starter but has turned into a future Hall of Fame closer.
Lukevics said he's not comparing Rivera to McGee, who has yet to throw a pitch in the big leagues, just pointing out that pitchers can come back from Tommy John surgery stronger than before. "It's not a death sentence anymore," he said.
McGee, who returned in July and made 16 minor-league starts, said he has gotten over one of the biggest hurdles: the mental one of not worrying about it happening again, as he's throwing the ball free and easy, without fear.
And he is still using his friend, Davis, as motivation. "I know I'm going to get there eventually," McGee said. "I just had a setback, and I knew if I would have been healthy, I'd be doing the same stuff he was doing. We've been at the same level every year and fed off each other. ..He's succeeding up there and I know I can do it, too."
PROSPECT WATCH: With two of the Rays' top prospects, OF Desmond Jennings and RHP Jeremy Hellickson, recently added to the 40-man roster, the question is: When will they break onto the big-league roster?
Lukevics said though both had great 2009 seasons, they could use some more seasoning in the minors. But Lukevics said Hellickson progressed further than he expected, especially in improving his changeup (which "became a factor"), and he wouldn't be surprised if the right-hander makes an impact at some point next season.
RAYS RUMBLINGS: The Rays have continued discussions with free-agent C Gregg Zaun, who has received interest from several other teams. … Tampa Bay is in talks with former major-league OF Rob Ducey about a potential scouting position; Ducey is formerly a scout with the Blue Jays. … Ben Zobrist's eight-place finish in the American League MVP voting was the highest ever for a Ray. Carlos Peña was ninth in 2007 and 2008, and Evan Longoria took 11th in 2008. … OF Jon Weber, who spent the past three years in the Rays minor-league organization, has reportedly signed a minor-league deal with the Yankees.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.