The Rays will promote left-hander Brendan McKay to start Saturday’s game against the Rangers, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reports (Twitter link). McKay isn’t on the Rays’ 40-man roster, so another transaction beyond a 25-man roster spot will have to be opened before Saturday.
McKay entered the season as one of the consensus top minor leaguers in the game, though pundits gave him something of a wide range of evaluations. ESPN’s Keith Law and Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen each ranked McKay as the 14th-best prospect in the sport, while MLB.com (29th), Baseball Prospectus (42nd) and Baseball America (49th) weren’t quite as bullish.
Part of the discrepancy could stem from McKay’s unique status as a two-way player. An outstanding pitcher and first baseman at the University of Louisville, the Rays drafted “Two-Way McKay” fourth overall in the 2017 draft and allowed him to continue at both positions in his pro career.
Thus far, McKay has shown a lot more promise on the mound, with a sterling 1.85 ERA, 6.24 K/BB rate, and 11.6 K/9 over 165 innings pitched, compared to a .216/.348/.356 slash line and 14 homers over 541 plate appearances (though he has hit quite well against Triple-A pitching). It’s worth noting that McKay’s progress was somewhat slowed by two different oblique injuries in 2018, once sustained as a pitcher and one as a hitter — “highlighting the inherent risk of developing a two-way player,” as MLB.com’s scouting report notes.
Perhaps as a nod to this injury risk, the Rays have seemingly looked to turn McKay (if he remains a two-way player at all) into a more direct copy of Shohei Ohtani, in terms of how the Angels deploy Ohtani when he isn’t on the mound. McKay has been used exclusively as a DH when appearing in a lineup this season, rather than any more time at first base.
It isn’t yet known if the Rays will give McKay any DH at-bats in the big leagues, though Tampa Bay has cycled so many players through the designated hitter spot this season (as a way of keeping everyone fresh) that it stands to reason McKay could also get a look. Austin Meadows has received the bulk of Tampa’s DH time this season, and with both Meadows and McKay are left-handed hitters, it doesn’t make for an ideal match. That said, the Rays are flexible with their lineups and positions as any team in baseball, so Avisail Garcia or Tommy Pham could get a breather against the occasional right-hander to allow for McKay to get some exposure to MLB pitching.
More immediately, however, McKay will be used to address the Rays’ pitching needs. With Tyler Glasnow facing an even longer IL stint after suffering a setback in his recovery from a forearm injury, the Rays are down to Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, and Yonny Chirinos as regular starters, with openers and bulk starters handling the other regular turns through the rotation. It could be that Tampa doesn’t want to overwhelm McKay in his first taste of the majors, and will keep him as just a pitcher for now. Getting some quality innings from McKay would be a big boost for the Rays, as the team could then more directly focus on adding relief pitching at the deadline rather than having to think about acquiring a starter as well.