On Aug. 4, the Rays did something for only the third time since the departure of Andrew Friedman — promote a player above Class A-Advanced Charlotte in the season after he was drafted.
That player was Shane McClanahan. Joe Ryan actually received the same promotion nine days later, and Michael Plassmeyer was a September addition to Durham’s staff.
The first two were pitchers Kyle Bird and Brandon Lawson. They both skipped Montgomery — and Bird actually skipped Charlotte — to help out Durham at the end of its season. The following season, both players returned to lower levels to continue their development.
Prior to the 2018 season — McClanahan’s sophomore season at South Florida — this wouldn’t have been a surprise. In its initial draft rankings in January that year, the lefty was ranked as the No. 3 prospect by Baseball America ($). He was a contender to be Detroit’s selection with the No. 1 pick.
However, his season did not go as planned. By the time the draft rolled around, he was still ranked as a top-10 prospect in the class but not a contender for the top pick. In conference play, he had a 6.56 ERA with 26 walks in 35 2⁄3 innings. Those inconsistencies caused him to drop to the No. 31 pick in the class, where the Rays selected him with their second pick in the draft.
McClanahan’s career often didn’t go as planned, though. He was a late bloomer in high school and decided to go to college rather than sign with the Mets in 2015 when he was drafted No. 779 overall. He gambled that with the gains in size, strength, and velocity he made as a senior in high school, he could continue on that trajectory and earn a lot of money in three years.
That gamble paid off, but he faced adversity before it did. McClanahan didn’t even pitch for the Bulls until 2017 due to Tommy John surgery. Despite a few too many walks, he was one of the top freshman pitchers in the country, posting a 3.20 ERA with 104 strikeouts in 76 innings.
McClanahan then picked up where he left off the following spring. Prior to conference season, he didn’t allow an earned run in 30 2⁄3 innings. The competition across those five starts wasn’t always great, but it did include a season-opening start against No. 6 North Carolina. He also threw six innings of a combined no-hitter against Army. He had 56 strikeouts in those five starts.
But after his struggles in American Athletic Conference play, teams clearly didn’t think they’d be getting that version of McClanahan in the draft, giving the Rays a chance to select him much later than he was expected to be available.
“Shane has very lively and powerful stuff from the left side. This natural arm talent combined with great competitiveness yields the potential to grow into an impactful major league pitcher,” scouting director Rob Metzler said once McClanahan signed.
After throwing 10 innings in his pro debut — including the Appalachian League playoffs — he was assigned to Class-A Bowling Green to start his first full pro season in 2019.
In the Midwest League, the Rays saw the highs and the lows of McClanahan. In his season debut, he struck out nine in five scoreless innings. His next time out, he only recorded one out. Overall, he succeeded with the Hot Rods, posting a 3.40 ERA in 53 innings with 74 strikeouts. High draft picks from college should perform well at that level, and he was ready for a new challenge.
On June 8, McClanahan was promoted to Charlotte, and there something changed. Suddenly, he was throwing more strikes. With Bowling Green, McClanahan had three or more walks in six of his 11 games. With Charlotte, it was just one start out of nine. Hie strike percentage with Bowling Green was 61%; with Charlotte, it was 67%. The major league average is 63.8%.
The difference may have been a mentality shift. In an interview with Neil Solondz aired on Aug. 18, McClanahan was asked what he’s learned this season.
“I learned that just fill up the zone, trust your stuff, trust the defense behind you, and good things happen,” he said. “Don’t be afraid of contact. Contact is good. When you have a group of guys like I do behind me that’ll make every play for you, it’s easy to pitch.”
Trusting his stuff came up again later in the interview.
“I didn’t have the best feel for my changeup in college. Trusting my stuff has helped my changeup come such a long way. I love throwing that pitch now, and I’ve gotten some really good results with it ... A ball in the zone is a lot better than a nasty changeup that you might’ve thrown in the dirt and not gotten a swing and miss on.”
The predraft questions of whether McClanahan will remain a starter when he reaches the majors haven’t yet been answered, but evaluators have taken note of his improvements. At MLB.com, he moved up from No. 12 in the organization before the season to No. 10 in the midseason ranking. In its September update, Baseball America even named him the No. 99 prospect in baseball.
He has improved his stock in the eyes of FanGraphs’ evaluators as well. They noted that his stuff looks like it did when he was at his best with USF and changed his future value rating — which attempts to approximate the value a player will provide in his first six years in the majors — from 45 to 45+, which means he could be a fringe-average starter, or the No. 4 man in a rotation.
McClanahan’s emergence has helped add depth at a spot the Rays’ strong farm system lacked in recent years. After Blake Snell graduated from prospect status during the 2016 season, Baseball America only ranked one lefty starter in the organization’s top 30 the following spring ($), and he was ranked No. 30. In consecutive drafts, the Rays used first-round picks on Brendan McKay, Matthew Liberatore, and McClanahan, and they also traded for Anthony Banda.
If he continues pitching the way he has, McClanahan could soon become a big leaguer, just like Snell, McKay, and Banda before him.
For now, he’ll finish the season with Montgomery. His 120 2⁄3 innings — and counting — this season have shattered his previous career high of 86 1⁄3 in 2018. For a starter with Tommy John surgery under his belt, that’s just as important as the improvements in his changeup and control.
Videos from Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus.