Strikes and strides: McGee progressing
Southpaw one of many promising Rays pitching prospects
ST. PETERSBURG -- Amid the plethora of talented young arms in the Rays' farm system is a freak, of sorts, in Jake McGee.
The 21-year-old is a left-hander with a 98-mph fastball, a curve and a changeup. Yes, Rays fans, this is somebody to get excited about.
"There's nobody I'm like. I feel I'm different than any other pitcher, because I'm left-handed and I throw hard," said McGee, after being asked to compare himself to any pitchers of note. "I have a breaking ball. Usually, left-handers who throw hard have a slider."
McGee went 5-4 with a 2.93 ERA and 145 strikeouts in 116 2/3 innings in 21 starts for Class A Vero Beach in 2007 before getting promoted to Double-A Montgomery, where he went 3-2 with a 4.24 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings in five starts. Also quite impressive was the fact he had just 52 walks for the season.
Making the jump from Class A to Double-A opened McGee's eyes.
"The difference was the whole atmosphere of how people played," McGee said. "The game speeds up. And hitters usually chase on the second pitch. But up there, the hitters usually lay off more, especially on offspeed pitches.
"It's a lot more competitive, you have to make a lot more adjustments, and they have to make a lot more adjustments to you."
Mitch Lukevics, the Rays' director of Minor League operations, said McGee has shown well in making the progression from one level to the next in the club's farm system.
"I think he is an outstanding young man who has talent," Lukevics said.
McGee feels like he made major strides this year.
"My changeup and curveball got a lot better this year," McGee said. "My curveball, I throw for strikes a lot more now."
After the season, McGee reported to the Rays' instructional league team, where he felt he made more steps in the right direction.
"I started throwing my curveball for strikes in any count," McGee said. "Get behind 2-0, I can throw it for a strike -- 2-1 or 2-2."
Heading into Spring Training, the Rays' top three starters will be Scott Kazmir, James Shields and recently acquired Matt Garza. The other two spots will be won in a competition between Andy Sonnanstine, Edwin Jackson, Jason Hammel, J.P. Howell, Mitch Talbot and Jeff Niemann, with David Price -- the No. 1 overall pick in 2007's First-Year Player Draft -- close behind.
In addition to McGee, Wade Davis and Chris Mason can be added to the wave of arms on the brink of joining the Rays' staff.
"Always nice to have pitching," Lukevics said. "That's a nice organizational thing."
McGee believes all the talent breeds a healthy competition.
"Because there are a lot of guys around you who can do as well as you," McGee said. "And it shows the Rays will be good in a couple of years, pitching-wise.
"Shows a lot, because it's not like another team where they are going to get a bunch of starters from other teams. They want to have us come up from the Minor Leagues."
McGee credits roving Minor League pitching instructor Dick Bosman for helping his progress.
"'Bos has helped me out a lot," McGee said, "with my curveball a lot and my mental game."
McGee said the Rays have told him the "last piece of the puzzle" was to be able to consistently throw his curveball for strikes.
"My fastball is a lot better and I can throw my changeup in just about any count," McGee said.
An appearance at instructional league by Shields made an impression on McGee regarding the professional approach he should employ to reach the Major Leagues and what to do once he gets there.
"He came by and talked to us, made a pretty good speech," McGee said. "That's the biggest part he was saying: 'If you don't prepare in the offseason, you won't have a good season.'
"I know I need to work hard during the offseason, try and get stronger, maintain what I had from this year to next year."
Being a whisper away from achieving the dream of pitching in the Major Leagues excites and motivates McGee.
"I started off kind of shaky at Double-A," McGee said. "Once I started doing better, I realized then I was a lot closer. That's a good feeling."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.