Brendan McKay was selected by the Tampa Bay Rays with the fourth overall pick in the 2017 MLB amateur draft out of the University of Louisville. At the time he signed for a record $7,007,500 bonus that was the highest for any player drafted under the capped pool system.
McKay was winner of the John Olerud Award for three consecutive years as college baseball’s best two way player and won the Golden Spikes Award his junior year as the best amateur player in the United States.
Thanks to McKay’s standout skills he was a top ten pick as both a pitcher and as a first baseman. The Rays have allowed him to continue to develop both ways in the minors.
The hitting hasn’t gone as planned; he’s hit .208/.341/.333 over 515 plate appearances ranging from Hudson Valley (A-) to Durham (AAA). Plate discipline is his best skill with a 15.2% walk rate and 23.6% strikeout rate. Despite having good Trackman data the results just haven’t been there when he puts the ball in play. The .208 batting average is below expectation, but the real surprise is the .126 ISO.
On the mound, however, he has surpassed the lofty expectations placed on him at the time of the draft. In 35 games he’s thrown 150.0 innings with a 1.98 ERA and 2.21 FIP. He’s posted an elite 34.7% strikeout rate and 5.0% walk rate.
He hasn’t slowed down while being promoted to Montgomery (AA) and Durham (AAA) this year. In ten games he’s thrown 51.2 innings with a 1.39 ERA and 1.93 FIP. His strikeout rate has surged to 37.3% and his walk rate has lowered to 4.7%. McKay has seen his prospect ranking rise to #14 overall at FanGraphs and #29 on the latest Baseball America Top 100.
For a pitcher without overwhelming stuff he has gotten great results. His fastball sits 91-94. He throws a cutter/slider that sits around 84-85. A mid 70s curveball is his best secondary pitch. He throws a solidly above average changeup that comes in the low 80s.
McKay has only had two starts since being promoted to Durham (AAA), but he’s shown his stuff is ready for the show.
One roadblock to helping the major league team this year is an innings limit. At Louisville threw 96.2, 109.2, and 109.0 innings. After being drafted in 2017 McKay added 20.0 innings at Hudson Valley bringing up his 2017 total to 129.0 innings.
In 2018 McKay suffered an oblique injury that held back his innings progression. He was off the field for a month, after which he started building back up at 2.0 innings and took a month until he threw 5.0 innings. He totaled 78.1 innings for the year.
This year the Rays want to see a step forward in innings from the 129.0 McKay was able to throw in 2017, but probably not more than around 150 innings. This would set up McKay for around 170-180 innings next year. That’s good enough to average 5 innings a start over a full major league season.
There is still one more step for McKay to make before he’s ready to help the major league club in a full time role: He needs to be able to throw on a normal starter schedule.
In college pitchers throw once a week, and the Rays continued that schedule while at Hudson Valley in 2017. In 2018 the Rays moved him to a six day schedule and have continued that in 2019.
McKay throws every sixth day with five off days regardless of the team schedule. The minor league teams have mostly used bullpen days when there wasn’t an off day to keep the rest of the rotation on his schedule.
The Rays play a double header Saturday in Boston. McKay started Monday night. This would be on a normal starter’s schedule day, but McKay hasn’t thrown with only four days off since high school at least.
If not for this scheduling issues, Saturday could have been the perfect opportunity to get a taste of the major leagues. But I can’t imagine the Rays would have McKay do something he’s never done at the major leagues for his first time. (Also, McKay is not on the 40-man roster but he is likely to be added this year).
So if not this weekend, when can we expect McKay to make his MLB debut? That’s uncertain. The recent promotion to Durham makes it feel like it closer than it is far.
Many have brought up a possible September call up that would mirror David Price’s role with the 2008 club. Price made five appearances including one start in September before seeing some time as a reliever in the 2008 playoff run that including getting the final out of the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox.
Price had a similar workload to McKay through his college run at Vanderbilt. In 2008 Price didn’t make his first minor league appearance until May 22 and was limited to 109.2 innings for the year. After the minor league season the Rays had the choice of calling Price up to the majors or sending him to the Arizona Fall League to make up for his missed time. The Rays decided to have him throw those innings in the majors. Price was already on the 40 man roster after signing a MLB deal straight out of the draft.
Whether we see McKay in a Rays uniform this September largely will depend upon whether he has reached his innings limit before being shut down for the year. This weekend would’ve been the perfect time to get a taste of the majors, but the transition to a traditional five day schedule needs to happen sooner rather than later for McKay.