Brendan McKay is more than a left-handed pitcher who gets some at-bats in between starts, more than a first baseman who can run to the mound and pump a few fastballs past a batter in a key moment.
He is hugely talented college pitcher with the potential to anchor a big league staff for years.
He is also a gifted hitter who can be the centerpiece of an offense.
McKay, selected fourth overall in last week’s draft, offers the Rays delicious possibilities as a pitcher and a first baseman.
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For now, the plan is to let McKay, a junior at Louisville playing at 2 p.m. Sunday against Texas A&M in the College World Series, explore both once he signs for excesses of $6 million and joins the organization.
A two-way player.
That is so Rays.
“It’s going to be awfully hard to allow a guy they signed for a lot of money to do it,” said Brooks Kieschnick, a two-way player for the Brewers in 2003 and 2004. “I applaud them for allowing this kid to find out which position will be his best or, maybe they’ll find out he’s good at both.”
That is unlikely.
You have to go back to Babe Ruth to find a big-leaguer who excelled on the mound and at the plate. It is hard enough to succeed at the major league level at one discipline.
Still, how you decide which path McKay should take?
Rays general manager Erik Neander said they will let baseball dictate.
It is hard not to envision the possibilities of McKay’s bat (.343 with 17 home runs and 56 RBI this season) in the heart of the Rays lineup. On the other hand, lefties with mid-90s fastballs, a plus-curve and excellent command do not come around very often.
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The Rays feel McKay has earned the right to see what he can do at both.
“With that fastball, there may be some pressure to go that direction,” said John Olerud, the former big-league first baseman and the man whose name is on the award given to the best two-way player in college baseball. McKay won the Olerud Award all three years at Louisville.
“But I’ve also seen some highlights of him swinging the bat and he’s got a beautiful swing from the left side,” said Olerud.
As Washington State sophomore, Olerud batted .464 with 23 home runs and 81 RBI. He was 15-0 as a pitcher with a 2.49 ERA. His preference was to be an everyday player.
That is what the Blue Jays wanted when they selected him in the third round of the 1989 draft. It was the right call. Olerud was a Gold Glove-winning first baseman who hit .295 over his 17-year big league career.
Kieschnick hit .360 with 43 home runs and 215 RBI in three years as an outfielder at Texas. He was 34-8 as a pitcher. The Cubs made him the 10th pick in the 1993 draft and sent him to the outfield, expecting big things.
Kieschnick never lived up to that promise. He spent parts of four big league seasons with three teams — he was drafted by the Rays in the 1997 expansion draft but never played for them in the majors — before signing a minor league deal with the White Sox in 2002.
He had one stipulation. He wanted to pitch.
He appeared 25 times in relief and had 189 at-bats, hitting .275 with 13 home runs.
Doug Melvin was hired as the GM of the Brewers before the 2003 season and was looking for ways to maximize the roster during what would be a rebuilding year. He signed Kieschnick to serve as a relief pitcher/pinch-hitter. This way Brewers manager Ned Yost could save a bench player and have Kieschnick hit for a pitcher then take over on the mound for an inning or two.
Kieschnick pitched in 74 games over two seasons and had 144 plate appearances, batting .286 with eight home runs and 19 RBI.
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“I had the best time playing baseball in ’03 and ’04 with the Brewers,” Kieschnick said. “I had fun playing the game. It was a game to me again.”
Melvin, now a senior advisor with the Brewers, wonders why teams did not follow his lead, especially in the National League.
“I think there’s room for that player,” Melvin said. “If you like a guy because he can play left field and second base and third base, why wouldn’t you like a guy because he can pitch and pinch-hit and play a position?”
Melvin acknowledges teams today are looking for ways to rest players not give them added duties.
But, he also points out, teams want to add versatility.
“Why not let him pinch-hit and go pitch a couple of innings?” Melvin said.
But McKay’s story differs from those of Kieschnick and Micah Owings, who provided two-way potential for six seasons earlier this decade.
Kieschnick was trying to save a career.
Owings was trying to maximize his worth.
McKay is about to begin his pro career. His possibilities are great at both positions.
Yet, how will the Rays, ever conscious of keeping players healthy, allow him to risk the injuries that come with hitting, running and sliding that could adversely impact his pitching career?
The Rays say they have yet to work out a schedule for McKay.
It is unlikely they will play McKay four games at first then have him pitch on the fifth day. It is possible he won’t hit the day before or after he pitches so his body can recuperate. How will that schedule impede his progress as a hitter?
So many questions.
Major league teams will monitor this, especially those interested in Japanese right-hander Shohei Ohtani, who doubles as a power-hitting, left-handed designated hitter.
Ohtani, who is expected to head to the majors next season, throws a fastball once clocked at 102.5 mph. He hit 22 home runs last season.
Baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement has capped the signing bonus of international players under the age of 25 at $5 million and gives teams six years of team-control. That means far more teams can afford the 22-year-old Ohtani than in previous years.
Ohtani said he wants to continue to pitch and serve as the DH once he reaches North American.
If the Rays somehow find a way to make it work with McKay, could they make a run at Ohtani?
Being a DH in between starts is one thing. Playing nine innings at first base is another.
McKay may find he is progressing quicker at one. That could make the decision easier.
Do you want to go to Tropicana Field and play first base? Or, do you want to stay at Triple A Durham and pitch more innings?
“Pitching is such a valued commodity,” Olerud said, “but being a great hitter is very valuable as well. I think the fear of letting somebody do both is you want to protect that arm, because that’s a huge benefit to the team. But somebody that can hit as well, there’s a lot of ways you can help out the team.”