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Brendan McKay, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the two-way experiment

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When it comes to their first-round pick, the Rays will be in uncharted waters

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Louisville vs TCU
Brendan McKay made this trot around the bases more often in 2017
Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Since 2010, the John Olerud Award is presented annually to college baseball’s best two-way player.

After the last three seasons, the powers at be might want to consider it renaming it after Brendan McKay. The star left-handed pitcher and first baseman, taken fourth overall by the Rays in the draft earlier this month, won the award all three seasons he was on campus.

The list of former winners is littered with talent — Danny Hultzen, Brian Johnson, Marco Gonzales and A.J. Reed were all top-50 picks in the draft. However, none were quite like McKay.

With the exception of maybe Johnson, who ended up reaching the majors as a left-handed pitcher, it was pretty clear whether each of those individuals would take the field as a pitcher or hitter. It had been rumored the Rays preferred McKay as a first baseman, and when commissioner Rob Manfred stepped up to the lectern to announce the No. 4 pick, McKay was announced as a first baseman.

That was a mistake on the part of the Commissioner. It was quickly reported the Rays intended for him to be announced as a pitcher and first baseman. The team confirmed as much on general manager Erik Neander’s conference call following the selection.

“I think we’re going to give him a chance because he’s earned that opportunity. We have him evaluated as an elite talent both ways, as a position player and as a pitcher.”

How would the Rays, or any organization, go about developing a two-way star, though?

That’s the question I asked MLB.com’s Jim Callis and Baseball Prospectus’ Jeff Long regarding McKay’s future.

When will McKay pitch?

When it comes to their first-round pick, the Rays will be in uncharted waters.

“The only other player who was a consensus top-five pick as both a hitter and a pitcher in the Draft era was Dave Winfield, and he came out of the 1973 Draft,” Callis said. “The Padres sent him straight to the big leagues as an outfielder and he never pitched. [It’s] hard to argue with results they got, but that's not really a template to follow.”

Now that McKay has signed, the questions the Rays have to answer to develop him begin immediately. The first will be to decide how much he pitches this summer.

“If it were up to me, I'd give his arm a rest,” said Long, noting that McKay threw over 300 innings as part of his two-way duty with Louisville.

However, when introducing McKay after signing, it was announced that he would immediately resume hitting and pitching as a professional with Hudson Valley. According to McKay, he’s going to throw roughly 30 innings this summer.

In the two drafts since the current Tampa Bay regime came into place after Andrew Friedman left for Los Angeles, the Rays have drafted and signed 13 starters from four-year colleges. Those pitchers averaged 116 total innings in their draft season. The team even had seven go over 120 innings, so 30 more innings on top of his 109 at Louisville is not a deviation from how the team normally handles college pitchers.

When will McKay hit?

A challenge that typically applies to catchers, and sometimes shortstops, is when the bat’s development is significantly further ahead of the glove, or vice versa. For former catchers like Bryce Harper or Wil Myers, it results in a position change to allow the team to benefit from the talented bat without taking significant time to develop the defense at a difficult position. For a shortstop like Freddy Galvis, it means the team benefits from the great glove at a difficult position but punts any expectation of offense from that spot in the lineup.

The Rays face a similar dilemma with McKay, but from a pitching v. hitting perspective.

“Do you develop McKay both ways and potentially get a useful two-way player, or do you let him focus on one and give him a great chance of reaching his ceiling,” Callis asked. “He's also more advanced as a pitcher, so he might move quicker in that role and need more time as a hitter.”

Performance this summer and in spring training will dictate which level McKay starts at in 2018.

The Rays have shown they don’t adhere to specific patterns when it comes to player assignments. Of the last three college hitters they drafted in the first round, Richie Shaffer and Mikie Mahtook started their first full seasons at the Class A-Advanced level with Charlotte. Casey Gillaspie started a level lower with Class-A Bowling Green. It’s the same picture on the mound — Ryne Stanek started with Bowling Green, Grayson Garvin pitched for Charlotte, but Jeff Ames started with short-season Hudson Valley.

“I don't think the Rays have determined what they'll do yet,” Callis said.

Is the two-way experiment worth it?

The potential of a player batting in the middle of the lineup and pitching 200 quality innings is certainly tantalizing, but whether it’s worth pursuing is up for debate and certainly was in front offices prior to the draft.

“Most scouting and development officials I've spoken to believe that McKay or any two-way player likely won't reach his ceiling if he's doing both,” said Callis. “but no one has really tried to do that with a prospect”.

As Long explained, aside from McKay’s impressive talent that allows him to do both, there’s a reason teams have not attempted to develop any player two ways — just doing one way is hard enough.

“There simply isn't enough time in the day for him to prepare as both a pitcher and a hitter, so from a game-planning standpoint alone, that's going to stunt his potential growth,” Long said. “It's also harder to follow your normal regimen when you're playing the field of DHing every day.”

Another factor is the professional game’s condensed schedule.

At Louisville, McKay would pitch once a week and allow his arm to recover the other six days. Not only will he have to handle the increased workload of a significantly longer season, he’ll have to adjust to typically getting four days of rest between starts instead of six.

While playing two ways may make it more difficult for McKay to reach his ceiling, he can always become a more ordinary baseball player if one side doesn’t work out as a professional. The conventional wisdom is that it’s easier to transition to pitching if hitting doesn’t work out than vice versa. Trevor Hoffman, Kenley Jansen and Sean Doolittle are just some of the players who have successfully made the switch.

Something many of these now-pitchers have in common, however, is that they all pitch out of the bullpen.

McKay has had a lot of success as a starter and has the arsenal, control and durability to start professionally. If hitting doesn’t work out for him, that the Rays are allowing him to continue starting could be key for him retaining value.

“The Orioles for example switched Mychal Givens from shortstop back to the mound, but the problem is that there wasn't enough developmental time to stretch him out and work on the things he would need to refine to become a starter,” said Long. “He has the talent to be a starter at that point, but there's an opportunity cost to that as well.”

Part of that opportunity cost is primarily the rule 5 draft. If he isn’t already, McKay would have to be added to the 40-man roster following the 2020 season or any team could take him and use him in any role they see fit if it doesn’t mind keeping him on the active roster all season.

Spots on the 40-man roster are valuable, and teams are usually wary of using them on long-term projects. In this scenario, a team might not want to wait on lengthening McKay back out. It might send him to the bullpen and try to get him to the majors faster to get a return on its investment instead of taking a more patient approach to develop him in the more valuable role in the rotation.

That’s why it’s crucial for the Rays to have McKay starting every fifth day. If he ever becomes a full-time pitcher, he won’t be starting fresh like Jansen or Doolittle. He’ll already be familiar with the starter’s routine and would just be adhering to it on a full-time basis.

What if pitching doesn’t work out?

Left-handed pitching is the calling card, but the exciting thing about McKay is that if pitching is not working out, the selection may not be a bust for the Rays, as McKay was not only the best left-handed college pitcher in the draft, but the best college hitter as well.

“I like [McKay] a little more as a hitter [and] think he's a potential .300 hitter with 20 homers a year,” Callis said, and it’s a sentiment Long’s writing agrees with.

Entering the season, McKay didn’t necessarily project as that kind of hitter. In his first two seasons, he hit a combined 10 home runs for the Cardinals. That’s not the power teams expect from a first baseman. However, as a junior, he hit 18 homers, tied for 21st in the country.

“Some had him as a top-five guy on the mound and a mid-1st rounder as a hitter, but he showed more power this season, which was one of the question marks,” said Long.

The selection of McKay provides the Rays with an enormous opportunity. For the first time in decades, they could develop a true two-way talent who has a significant impact on the mound and in the batter’s box.

“There's star potential on both sides of the ball,” said Long.

That opportunity certainly comes with challenges that will have to be confronted. As both Callis and Long said, there’s no path or precedent for the Rays to follow to guide McKay to the big leagues. As a small-market team, though, the Rays are used to facing challenges to compete against their rivals.

“The Rays aren't really followers anyway,” said Long.

Jim Callis’ work can be found on MLB.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @jimcallismlb

Jeff Long’s work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, and you can follow him on Twitter @jefflongBP