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Rays top prospects of all-time: No. 17

After 20 years of Rays baseball, we’re counting down the top prospects in franchise history.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Remembering when Al Lang Field was used for baseball
Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Next up on our list of Top-20 prospects in team history is a pair of pitchers. The true reason for this is after these posts started hitting the site, I was looking over my list and noticed a crucial admission. This particular player was too good to leave off, so we discussed our options and settled on pairing two together in one post.

20. SS Reid Brignac
19. RHP Matt White
18. RHP Chris Archer

17. RHP Wade Davis and LHP Jake McGee

Davis

Acquired: No. 75 pick by Devil Rays (2004)

Baseball America Top-100 ranks: 17 (2007), 32 (2008), 34 (2009), 97 (2006)
(Devil) Rays Top-30 ranks: 3 (2008), 3 (2009), 4 (2007), 6 (2005), 8 (2006), 14 (2004)
League Top-20 ranks: 3 (2005 New York-Penn League), 3 (2007 Southern League), 3 (2008 International League), 4 (2007 Florida State League), 5 (2009 IL), 8 (2006 Midwest League), 10 (2008 SL)

(Devil) Rays best tools: Best fastball (2006), Best curveball (2007, 2008)

McGee

Baseball America Top-100 ranks: 15 (2007), 37 (2006), 71 (2010)
(Devil) Rays Top-30 ranks: 3 (2007), 4 (2010), 5 (2006), 8 (2009), 9 (2008), 16 (2005), 23 (2004)
League Top-20 ranks: 3 (2007 Florida State League), 6 (2006 Midwest League), 9 (2005 New York-Penn League), 16 (2008 Southern League)

(Devil) Rays best tools: Best fastball (2007)
League best tools: Best fastball (2006 Midwest League, 2007 Florida State League)

Tampa Bay’s productive 2004 draft — featuring Davis, McGee, and Brignac, among others — didn’t really add much to the 2008 pennant-winning squad, but it was expected to help sustain that success for years in the future.

For many years, Davis and McGee were a true duo. They were drafted the same year, appeared close to each other whenever they appeared on the same prospect lists, and they frequently pitched on the same minor league roster. From 2004-08, they appeared on six different affiliates together.

In the end, their careers ended up in similar places — both became high-leverage relievers. But how they got there was quite different.

Both peaked in the Baseball America ranks after the 2007 season. They combined for 344 strikeouts in 298 13 innings for Class A-Advanced Vero Beach and Double-A Montgomery. They were separated by just two places in the BA Top-100, with McGee edging Davis as the No. 15 prospect in baseball. McGee perhaps had better stuff, while Davis perhaps had more control.

However, 2008 is when they diverged. They both started the season back with Montgomery, but while Davis earned a midseason promotion to Triple-A Durham, McGee was sidelined with an injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery.

Davis continued making steady progress in the organization and maintained a high ranking at BA. That progress culminated with his promotion to the majors late in the 2009 season. In 36 13 innings, he fanned 24 percent of batters faced. He walked 13 and had a 2.90 FIP.

Davis’ final BA scouting report was similar to the one from two seasons prior. His fastball has above-average velocity with good movement, and his curveball was a second plus pitch. He’s big, should be durable, and throws enough strikes, but he still hadn’t found a consistent third pitch. Maybe we shouldn’t have been as surprised by what came next in his major league career.

In two-plus seasons in the Rays’ rotation, Davis made 64 mostly mediocre starts. He had a 4.22 ERA and just 254 strikeouts in 388 13 innings. He allowed 49 home runs. He was still in his mid-20s, but he wasn’t showing progress. In fact, the results were getting worse.

The team’s starting pitching depth forced a move to the bullpen in 2012, and he was very successful. His velocity jumped, and he was more effective than ever. Despite that, when the Royals acquired him in the James Shields trade, they stretched him back out to start again.

It didn’t go well. Batters owned a .851 OPS against him as a starter, and Kansas City moved him back to the bullpen for the final month of the 2013 season. The rest is history.

Davis became a key member of the bullpen that became the face of the Royals’ back-to-back American League championship teams. He eventually became a closer, and he’s made three straight All-Star Games with the Royals and Cubs.

It took some time for McGee to get back on track. Because of the injury and subsequent surgery and rehab, he didn’t surface in the BA Top 100 again until after the 2010 season, and even then, he didn’t come close to reaching his peak from the post-2007 ranking.

He missed most of 2009 recovering from surgery, only pitching 30 innings between the Gulf Coast League Rays and Class A-Advanced Charlotte. He struck out more than a batter an inning, but he was tagged with 19 earned runs.

As many pitchers are, McGee was much better in his second season following the surgery. After returning to the Biscuits to start 2010, he finally moved up to Durham in August, where he moved to the bullpen for the first time as a professional. The team likely wanted to continue managing his innings working his way back from surgery, but it also served as a preview of what was to come. He was effective as a reliever, and he made his big league debut in September, helping the Rays win the AL East.

In McGee’s final BA report following the 2010 season, it was noted that his stuff was all the way back. He had his mid-90s fastball and his breaking ball working for him. According to BA, he may have even been better than he was before the injury ($):

Command and consistency were issues prior to his injury, but he has shown better feel for all of his offerings since his return.

He actually struggled in 2011 after breaking camp with the team, and he had to be optioned to Durham to get back on track. He was eventually better when he returned to the big club, and in 2012, he broke out as one of the game’s best relievers. Since that season, he owns a 3.06 ERA with 382 strikeouts in 329 23 innings. Although he has never made an All-Star Game, his contributions haven’t gone unnoticed. He was a member of Team USA’s 2017 World Baseball Classic winning team.

Maybe as relievers, this duo didn’t quite live up to the prospect hype, but even if they aren’t chewing up 180-200 innings every season, they still became two of the most effective pitchers in baseball, each highlighting a different path some pitchers can take. Quality pitching prospects should start until it’s clear they can’t do it, like Davis, and sometimes, a serious injury can nudge a player into a role that suits him, like McGee.