Jake McGee, A Failure


Scott Kazmir. David Price. Matt Moore. That trio is the short list of ace-quality left-handed pitchers that the Rays have had in their short history. Jake McGee should have been on that list as well.

McGee was the 5th round pick in a 2004 MLB Draft that yielded three other familiar pitchers for the Rays: Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, and Andy Sonnanstine. McGee made his pro debut that same season, going 4-1 with a 3.97 ERA, an 8.4 K/9, a 4.0 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 12 starts and 56.2 IP for Advanced Rookie-level Princeton. His 3.75 FIP was good but not particularly noteworthy, although he didn’t turn 18 until August of 2004.

The Devil Rays (as they were then known) decided to be conservative with  McGee in 2005, advancing him one level to Short Season-A Hudson Valley. There, he got exactly the type of results everyone in the Rays’ management hoped for. He went went 5-4 with a 3.64 ERA, 89 strikeouts (10.4 K/9), 23 walks (2.7 BB/9), and just 4 home runs allowed (0.5 HR/9) in 14 starts, a relief appearance, and 76.2 IP. His FIP was a ridiculous 2.23. Something clicked for McGee in 2005, and it was the start of an incredible run in the minor leagues.

In 2006 at Low-A Southwest Michigan as a 19 year old, McGee went 7-9, but with a 2.96 ERA, 171 strikeouts (11.5 K/9), 65 walks (4.4 HR/9), and just 7 home runs allowed (0.4 HR/9) in 26 starts and 134 IP. He led the entire Devil Rays organization in strikeouts, surpassing even Scott Kazmir and James Shields at the big league level. His did show that his control was not nearly as good as it appeared to be from his 2005 numbers, but hitters simply could not make contact against him. After the season, McGee was ranked the 5th best prospect in the Devil Rays system by Baseball America and the 37th-best prospect in baseball.

2007 started out even better for McGee. In 21 starts at High-A Vero Beach, McGee went 5-4 with a 2.93 ERA, 145 strikeouts (11.2 K/9), 39 walks (3.0 BB/9), and 8 home runs allowed (0.6 HR/9) in 116.2 IP. His FIP was a great 2.69 as he lowered his BB/9 from 4.4 to 3.0. McGee was so good that the Rays decided to bring him up to Double-A Montgomery for his final five starts of the year, which spanned 23.1 IP. But while he went 3-2 with his K/9 going up to 11.6, he posted just a 4.24 ERA as his walk rate jumped to 5.0 per 9 innings. The Rays were not worried about his struggles at Double-A given the small sample size and his unfamiliarity with the level. McGee led Devil Rays minor leaguers in strikeouts once again with 175 (although Kazmir and Shields beat him at the major league level) and he was ranked the 3rd best prospect in the (renamed) Rays system and the 18th prospect overall in baseball entering the 2008 season.

Everything fell apart for McGee in 2008. His numbers back at Montgomery were alarming: in 15 starts and 77.2 IP, McGee went 6-4 with a 3.94 ERA, posting just a 7.5 K/9, a 4.3 BB/9, and 0.7 HR/9, amounting to a 4.00 FIP. Something was up. Things turned out for the worst. McGee had severed the ulnar colateral ligament in his left pitching elbow, an injury that led to Tommy John Surgery in July of 2008.

McGee returned in July of 2009 and exhibited the typical struggles from pitchers returning from surgery, posting a 5.70 ERA in 16 rehab starts and 30 IP between the Rookie-level GCL Rays and High-A Charlotte. He was playing at levels he had surpassed years earlier, but it was nice that he posted a 12.0 K/9, a 3.6 BB/9, and a 0.6 HR/9, amounting to a 2.60 FIP. The big question was going to be how McGee would do in 2010, his first full season back from surgery. He was still just 23 years old and the potential was still there.

McGee began 2010 back at Montgomery, where he has been prior to the surgery, and he pitched pretty well, going 3-7 with a 3.57 ERA, a 10.2 K/9, a 3.4 BB/9, and a 0.3 HR/9 in 19 starts and 88.1 IP. His FIP was a great 2.53 FIP. But the Rays had seen enough. McGee was getting swings and misses, but his command was off, but the more pressing issue was that the Rays were scared that McGee was going to re-injure his elbow, which would render him a shell of his former self. The Rays decided to promote McGee to Triple-A Durham for the first time, but as a reliever. McGee made 10 relief appearances and 1 start for Durham spanning 17.1 IP and absolutely blew hitters away, posting a 0.52 ERA and striking out 27 (14.0 K/9) while walking just 3 (1.6 BB/9), and not allowing a single home run. His FIP was pretty decent- 0.60. That spurred McGee to the big leagues in September, and he pitched pretty well, posting a 1.80 ERA and striking out 6 (10.8 K/9) in 5 innings, although he did walk 3 (5.4 BB/9). McGee was no longer a starter, but the Rays still had incredibly high hopes for him as a reliever.

McGee made the Rays’ 2011 roster out of spring training, and because of his power arm, some experts said that McGee should close games for the Rays. Instead, he pitched badly in 11 April relief appearances, striking out 2 while walking 3 and allowing a home run in 7 IP, and that was despite the fact that the Rays were using him mostly in low-leverage situations (his aLI was .45, meaning he faced 55% less pressure during his appearances than the average pitcher). The Rays sent McGee back to Durham, where he pitched pretty well, going 4-2 with a 2.70 ERA, a 10.3 K/9, and a 2.2 BB/9, but a 1.1 HR/9. The Rays saw enough from McGee to bring him back to the majors in July. McGee got off to a nice start in his return to the majors, posting a 1.80 ERA with 8 strikeouts compared to 4 walks in 8 appearances totaling 8 IP. But he fell apart once again in August and September, striking out 17 compared to 5 walks in 15 IP, but allowing 4 home runs, a scary 2.4 HR/9. On the season, McGee went 5-2 with a 4.50 ERA, 27 strikeouts (8.7 K/9), 12 walks (3.9 BB/9), and 5 home runs allowed (1.6 HR/9) in 37 appearances and 28 IP. His FIP was an even-worse 4.70. To begin 2012, McGee has continued to falter, posting a 10.80 ERA in 4 appearances but just 1.2 IP, walking 2 compared to just 1 strikeout.

Jake McGee went from 5th round surprise to top prospect to inconsistent middle reliever. Ordinarily, a team would be happy if they got a major league middle reliever out of their 5th rounder, but considering just how high McGee’s stock rose, he has to be considered a disappointment. McGee is still young as he won’t turn 26 until August, and he still has a chance to carve out a nice major league career for himself in a relief role. But nevertheless, there’s no way to say that he lived up to expectations.

Jake McGee will always be compared to Matt Moore. Both are hard-throwing left-handers drafted by the Rays in later rounds out of high schools in the Western United States (McGee in Nevada, Moore in New Mexico) who both achieved top prospect status with electric arms but struggled mightily with command and control. Moore overcame his problems, and even though 2012 is his rookie season, it is impossible to deny anymore that pending disaster, Moore will be a topflight major league starting pitcher. McGee dealt with injuries in addition to his control problems, and he could not come out ahead. Jake McGee will never be the player he had the potential to be or even remotely close. Unless he can become a quality major league closer or at least a setup man, he is a bust. For now and maybe forever, Jake McGee is a failure.