PORT CHARLOTTE – In an effort to aid two-way prospect Brendan McKay’s development as a pitcher and a hitter the Rays have decided he no longer will play the field.
By limiting McKay to DH duty rather than playing first base, the Rays feel he can simplify his pre-game schedule; focus on his performance at the plate, which has lagged behind his work on the mound; and, they hope, stay healthier after being sidelined twice last season with oblique injuries.
The Rays recently discussed the change with McKay, the No. 4 pick in the 2017 draft who got a $7 million bonus, and will implement it when he reports to minor-league camp later this month.
“This is all about prioritizing the things we think are most important in Brendan’s development at this stage,’’ senior VP Chaim Bloom said. “This will allow him to organize his pregame program more efficiently and keep his in-game focus on the areas we think are most critical to his development.’’
In spending most of his first full pro season at Class A Bowling Green and Charlotte last year, McKay pitched in 19 games and was in the lineup for 56 others, starting 28 at first. His numbers were much better as a pitcher, posting a 5-2, 2.41 record with 110 strikeouts, and only 14 walks, in 78 1/3 innings while hitting .214 with six homers, 39 RBI and a .727 OPS.
Some analysts, such as ESPN’s Keith Law, say the Rays should halt the two-way experiment and have McKay focus on pitching because he is good enough to have an impact in the majors sooner, even this season.
Though cutting back on McKay’s workload, Bloom said they remain committed to developing him as a two-way player, and don’t consider this a step away or back from that plan.
“We understand the skepticism,’’ Bloom said. “What Brendan is attempting is something that for good reason not many are able to do. But he’s been doing it at a high level his whole life, and he’s eager to continue. This is a way to streamline his development and set him up for success.’’
Shaping a unique development program for McKay has been somewhat of a fluid process. The Rays relied heavily on feedback from McKay last year and also experimented in different ways, such as limiting him taking infield practice and changing their cutoff-and-relay alignment so McKay, when playing first, wouldn’t have to make stressful throws.
They feel, at least for now, that reducing his workload by taking away the defensive drills or responsibilities will allow him to spend more and better time elsewhere, and with less wear and tear. For example, his only throwing will be as part of his pitching program. The Rays have not ruled out McKay returning to first base at some point later in his career.
But for this season, McKay, assigned either back to Charlotte or promoted to Double-A Montgomery, will be on a six-day schedule, with plans for him to pitch once, have one day off and then DH four days.
Tanner Dodson, another Rays two-way prospect who pitches in relief and plays centerfield, will continue to play the field.
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.