It’s been just under a full calendar year since right-handed pitching David McKay was sent from the Kansas City Royals organization, along with a trio of other minor league arms, for what Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times has indicated was literally one dollar.
At the time, McKay had done little to instill hope in the Royals’ front office that he had much of a future in the game, struggling through two seasons (19 starts) at rookie ball before receiving a short and ultimately unimpressive run as a reliever in A-ball. Fast-forward to this spring, and you’d be shocked to learn that the guy consistently throwing up zeros in Cactus League games for the Mariners against the likes of Ryan Cordell, Leury Garcia, Rob Refsnyder, and Ryan Flaherty joined the Mariners for less than the cost of a load of laundry. While far from household names, the list of David McKay’s strikeout victims this spring includes a handful of Major League veterans mixed in with your run-of-the-mill mid-level prospects.
Having survived another round of roster cuts on Monday, McKay remains one of 44 players left in big league camp despite topping out at Double-A last season and his standing on the outside looking in on the 40-man roster.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a guy whose circumstances have changed more greatly over such a short time span as McKay, whose departure from KC essentially suggested their organization felt there were upwards of 100 guys in their system who had a brighter future than the 2016 14th-rounder. After being acquired by Seattle, the Florida Atlantic alum was shifted permanently to the bullpen, where he’d shown a bit more strikeout ability--albeit with a touch of a control issue--while a member of the Royals’ organization. After initially bouncing between Tacoma and Modesto, the 6’3” righty found a role with the Double-A Arkansas Travelers, appearing in 35 games from the end of April through the remainder of the season.
Upon joining the Mariners’ organization, McKay altered his mechanics, lowering his arm slot. He stated that he’d previously had a higher front side, which produced a more over-the-top delivery that he had difficulty repeating and was a less natural throwing motion for him. The results have been drastic and obvious, as he’s rapidly gone from “organizational castoff” to “shutdown relief prospect” thanks to a much-improved slider he can use to put batters away.
Armed with a low 90’s 2-seamer that runs in on right-handed hitters, a curve in the upper 70’s, and the deadly slider, McKay posted 12.6 K/9 and a 2.49/2.90/3.34 line through 50.2 Texas League innings. He followed that up with a stint in the prestigious prospect-laden Arizona Fall League, where he showed signs of fatigue but still managed to limit runs for the most part. He’s been one of the greatest surprises of camp as the Cactus League season nears its end. He’s appeared in five Cactus League games, allowing a single baserunner in two outings and nothing beyond that.
Despite leading the system in a variety of pitching statistics this spring (YES it’s spring training and YES he’s throwing late in those games), McKay’s greatest obstacle in cracking the major league roster when they depart camp next week remains a roster construction issue. With the big league club not expected to compete in 2019, the better McKay performs, the further incentive the organization has to protect his service time and keep in down on the farm on off the 40-man roster. Additionally, there’s no real logical candidate at present to be booted from the roster even if the club were interested in testing their pop-up prospect against big league talent. If they’re willing to discard Rule-5 selection Brandon Brennan or if Kyle Seager winds up on the 60-day Injured List, a spot could open up for McKay, but an assignment to Tacoma remains the likeliest outcome at present, although a strong performance there could push him up the I-5 corridor. At minimum, his impressive run over the last calendar year is a testament to the organization’s scouting and developmental programs and has opened the eyes of some high-level staff both on and off the field.