Rays' Brendan McKay Shines In Triple-A Debut
DURHAM, N.C. — The Rays are one of baseball’s most relentlessly creative organizations. Over the last few years, they’ve put their closer at first base and introduced the world to The Opener, all while playing in in a stadium that features both catwalks and a tank full of live rays.
Now, they might have another trick up their sleeve.
Earlier this month, the team asked Triple-A Durham shortstop Jacob Cronenworth—who is leading the International League in hitting, by the way—to call on his two-way roots from his days at Michigan and return to the mound in an opener’s role.
He’s made two one-inning appearances and hasn’t allowed a run or a hit. He’s struck out three but walked five. Those two appearances make Cronenworth the third true two-way player in the organization, joining high Class A Charlotte’s Tanner Dodson, who excelled on the mound and at the plate at California, and Brendan McKay, who became Cronenworth’s teammate at Durham when he debuted on May 28.
So, with two dual-threat players on the roster, is there a possibility that Cronenworth might one day open for McKay?
“It’s probably going to happen," Bulls manager Brady Williams said. "If we can attack a game with those two guys . . . we want to develop both of them, so if that’s the best way to do that in a day, then we’re going to do that.”
On Tuesday, though, the spotlight was on McKay from his first pitch until his 65th, which took him through five shutout innings in Durham’s rout of visiting Louisville. The lefthander, who ranks No. 35 on BA’s Top 100 Prospects list, struck out four, walked none and commanded a four-pitch mix fronted by a low-90s fastball that touched 94 mph.
He backed up the fastball with a curveball, cutter and changeup, and he threw 39 of his 65 pitches for strikes (60 percent). He also got seven swings and misses, good for a rate of 10.7 percent.
“It was good. It had been a couple years since I’d been back in the Durham park, and it’s always good to get off to a good start and have success and just get a feel back for the game again” said McKay, who also pitched at Durham Bulls Athletic Park during the Athletic Coast Conference tournament in 2016.
McKay was dominant at Double-A Montgomery to begin the season. With the Biscuits, Tampa Bays’ 2017 first-round selection went 3-0, 1.30 in eight appearances (seven starts), allowed just 25 hits in 41.2 innings while striking out 62 and walking nine. His strikeout rate of 13.39 per nine innings was fifth among all qualified minor leaguers, and his swinging-strike rate of 17.8 percent was fourth among the same group.
He drew praise from evaluators for his poise, command and ease of operation. He doesn’t have traditional blow-away stuff, and yet he blows away hitters nonetheless.
“The word is that he attacks with his fastball and has really good fastball command, and that was what we saw tonight,” Williams said. “He attacked from pitch one. I thought his breaking ball was really good at times. Changeup wasn’t a pitch he used a whole lot tonight. It was pretty much fastball, breaking ball and cutter, so a good debut for him.”
McKay’s schedule will remain the same at Durham as it was in Montgomery: He’ll pitch every sixth day and get time at DH in between, though never on the day before or after a start. He’ll work to balance his pitching with his hitting to maximize his value and become the second true two-way player to debut in the big leagues in the last two seasons.
Scouts say McKay has a lot of work to do for his bat to catch up with his arm, but he says he’s still up for the challenge.
“There’s really nobody I talk to (for advice) other than guys I’ve played with. They’re always supporting me, and family members, too,” McKay said. “They say, ‘Hey, keep doing it. You might be struggling, but just keep working through it.’”
Now, the next time he needs to bounce ideas off someone with two-way experience, he doesn’t even need to leave his own locker room.