MLB draft prospect Brendan McKay is a duel threat as both a position player and pitcher.
USA TODAY Sports
Brendan McKay is not yet ready to give up on his dream, even if baseball wisdom suggests it ends in the next month.
He’ll still envision himself peppering the short porch at Yankee Stadium with home runs one day, and beguiling hitters with a curveball he discovered almost by accident the next. He believes he can climb the ladders of professional baseball aided both by a left arm that dominates opposing hitters, and a gorgeous swing that has McKay, at 21, only now realizing his power potential.
Yet McKay knows his dual existence as a power-hitting first baseman and dominant left-handed starter may only last as long as he and the Louisville Cardinals can stay alive in the NCAA baseball regionals.
The Minnesota Twins are strongly considering selecting McKay with the first overall pick in the June 12 Major League Baseball draft, a slot with a maximum value of $7.7 million. And the Twins, McKay tells USA TODAY Sports, told him they like him more as a pitcher.
While the Twins’ plans remain fluid – regarding both McKay’s future and whether to draft him at all – McKay knows that once a big league team starts signing paychecks, the player’s wishes are secondary.
And so as Louisville opens NCAA play at home Friday against Radford, McKay will revel in his preference – both of the above – for at least one more weekend.
“The satisfaction of having a great day at the plate or on the mound – it’s tough to choose one or the other,” says McKay. “Doing both is the same fun to have.”
McKay’s situation – we won’t call it a plight, as he’s an impending multi-millionaire – along with that of California high schooler Hunter Greene has seized the draft spotlight this year, as an age-old scenario plays out, with millions of dollars at stake.
Or – against all odds – do both?
Greene, a power-hitting infielder who also has a 100-mph fastball, has a UCLA scholarship to fall back on, but is expected to be selected among the top five picks and begin his pro career on the mound. That means leaving behind a power bat that has been ranked near the top of the scouting scale, paired with an ability to play defensively in the middle of the diamond.
Regardless of how they fare professionally, McKay and Greene will have sizable signing bonuses in hand.
And that will provide some measure of comfort that they chose the right path – because there are times the scouting community can get it wrong, too.
“Sometimes, it might be fairly apparent which one of the two you’re better at, even if both are really good,” says Baltimore Orioles slugger Mark Trumbo. “And sometimes it’s really difficult. And the team makes that decision for you.”
Trumbo knows how it goes: As a high school senior he was ranked 31st on Baseball America’s 2004 prospect list – as a pitcher. At 6-5, Trumbo had raw power as a hitter, but his 97-mph fastball attracted pro scouts and a scholarship offer from USC, which he expected to accept. Then, the Los Angeles Angels took an 18th-round flyer on him and bought him out of college with a $1.4 million signing bonus.
One problem: His physical exam revealed “wear and tear in the elbow more typical of someone considerably older than me,” Trumbo recalls. An audible was called: Trumbo would shelve pitching, and hit, instead.
Talk about your good breaks: Thirteen years later, Trumbo is a two-time All-Star, with 185 career home runs, and is slated to gross nearly $60 million in major league salary.
“You have to trust there’s a lot of people in the game who’ve seen and done things you haven’t, and are qualified to make that decision,” says Trumbo. “At the same time, there’s no science to it.”
Trumbo need only look across the Orioles clubhouse to see that.
As a high school senior in 2009, Mychal Givens had a 97-mph fastball and struck out 113 batters in 78 innings for Plant High School in Tampa. The Orioles saw his hitting ability and athleticism and thought, “Shortstop.” They drafted Givens in the second round, gave him an $800,000 bonus, and then watched him struggle to hit his weight in the low minors.
By 2012, Orioles player development director Brian Graham approached Givens with a shorter, alternate path to the majors – back on the mound. Givens, 27, is now in his third season as a major league reliever – with a 15-2 record – and pitched for Team USA’s championship squad in the World Baseball Classic.
“If you’re athletic, and you know your athletic ability, go out there and do both,” says Givens, who has struck out 11 batters per nine innings in his major league career. “Don’t let a team make it one-sided. Let them make the decision, but go work hard at both and whatever path it takes you, go ahead and pursue it.”
That’s McKay’s plan.
His baseball skill set is a testament to both natural ability and some fate. At 6-2 and 220 pounds, he’s solidly built for his positions, albeit lacking the length of lefty aces like Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner and David Price.
Scouts have raved about his hand-eye coordination, which he says he partially honed when his grandfather would babysit at his home in suburban Pittsburgh. Grandpa would pitch pingpong balls at McKay, who’d try to hit it armed with only a mini wooden bat.
His finest pro tool might be his curveball, which has helped him strike out 124 batters in 91 innings this season, and hold opposing hitters to a .181 average. The pitch is not a God-given gift, but rather courtesy a kid named David Lyons, who taught McKay the grip while both were 13-year-olds playing travel ball for the Beaver Valley (Pa.) Baseball Club.
Lyons went on to become a pretty good high school wrestler. McKay? He produced a 72-inning scoreless streak in high school on his way to Louisville.
His collegiate resume is bordering on historic. McKay is a shoo-in to become just the third three-time Baseball America All-American, the first since Greg Swindell and Robin Ventura some 30 years ago. He has a career 30-10 record, with 369 strikeouts in 297 1/3 innings.
McKay took the biggest stride forward with the bat this season, upping his home runs from six to 17, while batting .363 and posting a 1.186 on base plus slugging.
What does that mean come June 12? Well, with the scouting community lacking a consensus, McKay has heard no shortage of scenarios floated by potential employers.
And yes, some teams do entertain the concept of McKay on the mound and batter’s box after he signs, even if only in short-season rookie ball as his future comes into focus.
“It could be just for that initial summer,” says McKay, “but it’d be fun to be able to do both and see where it takes you.”
Either way, it will be a whirlwind for McKay, who figures to get the ball in one of the first two games of Louisville’s regional. The Cardinals (47-10) open Friday against Radford.
Greene saw his high school season end last week. Yet for both, draft day – and a fascinating future – will come quickly.
“It can be overwhelming at times, to the point you might be overthinking it,” says Twins outfielder Byron Buxton, the second overall pick in the 2012 draft who also shelved a 99-mph fastball after high school. “You just have to relax and enjoy the moment – because it comes very fast.”
And when your tools are as diverse as McKay’s and Greene’s, it affords the luxury of a backup plan.
“I was 100% certain that if I needed to pitch, I absolutely could,” says Trumbo. “It was always that bullet in my pocket, so to speak.”