David Price started the season in the headlines. Jeremy Hellickson's rise to the top of the system grabbed attention halfway through the year, and Wade Davis throwing a major league shutout ended the 2009 news cycle for Rays pitching prospects. Price and Davis will be in the rotation starting opening day, with Hellickson asking for a promotion by mid season. In the lower levels, Matt Moore, Alex Colome, Alex Torres and Nick Barnese will be leading the next wave of young arms. Meanwhile, somewhere between Montgomery and Durham the forgotten prospect, Jake McGee, will be on the mound once again.
While some are reporting the idea of Jake McGee going to the bullpen as something new, for many of us, it has seemed inevitable even before Tommy John cut his 2008 season short and wipe out most of his 2009. The book on McGee since, um ever, has been a great fastball with average secondary stuff. Similar to Price, many feel -or felt- that in order to be a successful starter that McGee would need to develop a plus pitch or two to go along with the dominate heater. If that didn't happen, McGee could still be a dominant arm out of the bullpen; we are nearing that decision now
Tommy John surgery is hardly a death sentence for a young pitcher. And missing a year of action doesn't necessarily mean McGee still can't develop those secondary options, but the Rays do not have a pressing need for a starter. Sure, it's true that you can't have enough starting pitching and a good starter is more valuable than a good reliever, but the Rays are not currently lacking options in the rotation. Instead of continuing his rehab, as well as working on becoming a three or four pitch starter, McGee could help the Rays, and help himself make it to the big leagues quicker by becoming a two pitch lefty fireballer out of the pen.
In the spring of 2008, I sat behind the Rays coaches during a game in which McGee came in relief. The coaches had instructed him to pitch from the stretch to start the inning. The words of one coach told the story; he has closer stuff, so he might as well get used to it. And it's true; he does have closer stuff.
Even though J.P. Howell has proven you can be elite without an elite fastball, it's not the preferred method. McGee, even after surgery, has that dominant fastball and can spend 2010 working on one more pitch and possibly be the answer to our need for another late inning ace.
It would be unfair to expect the 23 year-old lefty to come into camp and win a spot outright, but it will be interesting to see how he's used. The Rays, as they should, maintain that McGee will get an opportunity as a starter, but even they admit the bullpen could be his eventual home. For McGee, a move to the bullpen is easily the best way to get to the big leagues. He's already missed a year of action and has fallen behind at least Davis and Hellickson in the starting prospect pecking order.
His 2009 numbers shouldn't be taken too seriously, but shouldn't be ignored. His 6.45 ERA in A+ ball is not very important (if you're worried check the .394 BABIP). However, his strikeout rates were back to where they were in previous years and his walk rates were respectable albeit against lower competition. More importantly, his velocity appears to be where it was pre-injury and the second year after surgery is usually a better bench mark than the first.
If you read around or talk to Rays fans, you'll hear calls for Billy Wagner. Here, we've debunked that for a few reasons: 1) He costs too much. 2) He's older and still coming off an injury. 3) The Rays are not giving the Red Sox their first round pick. Nonetheless, just because Wagner is not walking through that door, doesn't mean the Rays won't add another hard throwing lefty. McGee may be the forgotten prospect for now, but for 2010, he may be the most important.