When the Rays drafted Brendan McKay, he was announced as a first baseman. It was always thought the two-way star from Louisville would need to focus on one craft eventually, and it sounded like Tampa Bay wanted him to hone his hitting skills long-term.
Word spread that the organization would let McKay, who won the John Olerud Award as the college game's best two-way player an unprecedented three times, continue to both hit and pitch for a little while as he got acclimated to pro ball. But no one thought it would extend beyond this debut summer.
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No one except the Rays and McKay, that is. As the No. 4 overall pick in the Draft has been playing for the Hudson Valley Renegades in the Class A Short-Season New-York Penn League, both in the batter's box and on the mound, it's become clear this will be a bit of a longer-term experiment.
"In college, Brendan was something the Draft hadn't seen in a while, a top-of-the-Draft prospect as a hitter and as a pitcher," Rays senior vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom said. "Coming into pro ball, we didn't want to limit him. We see him as a really interesting prospect on both sides of the ball. We don't want to place artificial limits on him over time; the game will tell us what he can do. We didn't think it was fair to place any limits on what he might be able to accomplish, based on what he's been able to do thus far."
While McKay hasn't hit for average (.205) thus far, he has shown some power with four homers and some ability to draw walks (12.8 percent walk rate). He's also tossed eight shutout innings in three outings, allowing just two hits and three walks while striking out nine. It's all been during limited work after a very long final season at Louisville, but the 21-year-old is looking forward to seeing how long he can keep doing what he did throughout his amateur career.
"I want to continue to do both as long as I can," McKay said. "I know at some point, it's going to get cut and be one or the other. But I'd love to stay with both and try to impact the game in some way."
The Rays are fully on board with helping McKay do that. This is uncharted territory from a player development standpoint, so they're hoping to work with the best resource on being a two-way player they can find: McKay himself.
"When Brendan signed, our staff sat down with him," Bloom said. "There's a lot we can learn from him. We did a full debrief on what his routine has been so far. In the early going, we tried to adapt that to the pro game. This summer, the thought is he'll learn some things by how the experience is for him playing every day. That will let us know how we want to carry this into his first full season."
Though McKay has been pitching in shorter stints this summer, that's mostly been a workload-related decision. The Rays feel that if he is going to succeed on the mound, it's going to be as a starter. That adapted routine includes finding the right times to throw bullpen sessions while making sure McKay gets enough reps during batting practice to stay sharp and not get too worn down. Doing this over 140 games of a Minor League season, not to mention the 162 in the big league schedule, sounds daunting, but there's no question he has thought about what impact a two-way player could have.
"With rosters being only at 25 until September callups, I think if you can have a couple of guys who can make it to the big leagues and be successful at it, and do it well enough where it has an impact on the game, you can expand your roster to 26 or 27 or more essentially with a 25-man roster," McKay said. "I think it's a great opportunity. It's a great chance to help baseball with maintaining a roster to give teams a better chance to win in certain situations."
If nothing else, this promises to be one of the most intriguing storylines in the 2018 season, just to see how McKay and his organization handle his development, especially since there is truly no model to follow. Both the player and the front office are as excited about what the future might look like.
"It's fun to have a team that's willing to take chances, do things out of the ordinary, really let players be who they are," McKay said.
"We have a staff that prides themselves in what they do," Bloom said. "This challenge has energized them. The idea that this is not a well-worn path, this is exciting for all of us.
"He came in with such an advanced understanding of what makes him tick as a player. We try to be open and accessible to all of our players, especially with this kind of a unique challenge. It really helps to have someone who is comfortable communicating and is up for the back and forth and the working together this kind of development project requires."