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40 in 40: Easton McGee drifts to the Mariners

Good enough for me and Easton McGee

Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

If you know the song “Me and Bobby McGee,” you probably know Janis Joplin’s cover of it, only the second song in history to reach #1 on the U.S. singles chart posthumously (the first was Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay”).

However, “Me and Bobby McGee” was originally written by Kris Kristofferson at the behest of producer Fred Foster, who challenged Kristofferson to write a track using the name of studio secretary Barbara “Bobbie” McKee (Kristofferson misheard her surname and wrote it as “McGee”). The song was originally recorded by Roger Miller, then later by Kenny Rogers, Gordon Lightfoot, and Kris Kristofferson, among others.

But it is Joplin’s version, recorded only a few days before her death in October 1970, that has become iconic, with Joplin’s scratchy, bluesy voice the perfect wistful vessel to tell the tale of two drifters who come together for a good time if not a long time—emblematic of Joplin’s own all-too-brief time on the planet.

The infamous acronym TINSTAAP—There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect—was coined by Baseball Prospectus founder Gary Huckabay as a way to express the high attrition rates among pitchers, especially high school pitchers; a reminder that pitchers are often here for a good time, not a long time. More than any other class of player, relief pitchers are baseball’s drifters: relievers are popular targets in the Rule 5 draft, easy throw-ins to sweeten the pot in trades, or common trade deadline acquisitions for teams looking for an extra push to get to the postseason.

When the Rays took Easton McGee in the fourth round of the 2016 MLB Draft out of his Kentucky high school (Hopkinsville, TN, known for famed mystic Edgar Cayce, a bowling ball factory, and the Hopkinsville Goblin Case) and signed him to an well-overslot deal to talk him out of his commitment to Kentucky, they were betting against TINSTAAP, accepting the risk of allocating a couple of extra hundred thousand dollars of their draft pool to the draft’s most volatile profile, the high school pitcher.

At the time of the draft, McGee had already topped out height-wise at an eye-popping 6’6”, but was still the prototypical lanky, slender high school pitcher. Young, super-tall pitchers can be even longer developmental projects because there is just that much more of them to get in sync, but McGee stood out for his smooth, easy delivery and ability to control his body. In this slowed-down look from Prospect Pipeline, you can see how free and easy his delivery is—he looks like he’s just playing catch in the backyard—and how direct he is to the plate; he stays centered over his feet, there’s no falling off to the side of the mound, no unnecessary head bob, no complicated mechanics; just a simple, straightforward delivery. At a time when many other pitchers his age and size were struggling to master the zone, McGee already had an advanced understanding of how to challenge hitters in all areas of the zone.

Despite his advanced feel for pitching, McGee was a mid-round talent, as his fastball wasn’t going to blow anyone away at 88-91, and he was still in the process of working on his secondary pitches. The Rays took him anyway in the fourth round, buying him out of his college commitment, and sent him to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, where he struck out 14% of batters faced while walking 8% of them in his first 23 professional innings.

The walk rate would improve; the strikeout rate would not. McGee simply does not miss bats; he is a contact manager and groundball specialist. He has never struck out more than 22% of batters faced, but he’s also never walked more than 5% of batters faced since his professional debut. More importantly, he’s gotten batters to put the ball on the ground an obscene amount: over 44% at least every year of his pro career until 2022, his first full season at Triple-A (there he fell off to a mere 40%).

The hoped-for additional velocity on his fastball never emerged (although he did get up to 94 in his pro debut), but McGee is instead able to use his sinker to generate all those ground balls, pairing that with a low-velocity (80-82 mph) slurvy slider that generates good glove-side run. In his pro debut against the Astros he also threw a few changeups to some of the Astros’ lefty hitters that looked fairly flat and hittable. In addition to the four-seam, McGee also throws a curveball, giving him a full starter’s arsenal.

In the upper minors, the Rays used McGee primarily in three-inning stints, likely with the role of opener or long reliever in mind, but they might have also been trying to build him back slowly after the lost 2020 season and a 2021 where he missed the first two months of the season with an injury. In the past, McGee has been an innings vacuum for Tampa Bay’s organization, reaching the 125-inning mark in 2019, a mark he would have come close to in 2022 if not for a brief trip to the IL. However, it’s unclear how exactly McGee fits in Seattle, which doesn’t use the opener and boasts a full rotation that is among the league’s best.

It was the most limited of sample sizes, but without a third pitch that can get MLB hitters out, swingman feels like McGee’s ceiling, but some refinement on the slider could turn him into a valuable relief option. We know the Mariners love a sweeping slider, and in the very limited sample we have of major-league data, McGee’s slider showed 15.8 inches of horizontal break on average—above-average, but not wildly so. Maybe, like they did with Sewald, another relative soft-tosser, the Mariners could have McGee focus solely on sweep with the slider to try to elicit some more whiffs. Or, yet another path: they could lean into maximizing McGee’s five-pitch arsenal and stash him in Tacoma as a “break glass in case of emergency” depth option, as the 25-year-old still has all three of his minor-league options. Unlike Bobby McGee, Easton is still looking for a home.

It remains to be seen which recording of “Me and Bobby McGee” Easton McGee’s Mariners career will be. The sweetly aching country-inflected Kristofferson version? The serviceable and safe but uninspiring Gordon Lightfoot version? The straightforward, peppy, slightly sardonic Roger Miller version? Jerry Lee Lewis’s fully chaotic version? Waylon Jennings’ professional, easy-expertise version? Pink’s surprisingly delightful 2003 “Sessions @AOL” cover? Or maybe a karaoke version you hear passing through the bar from an over-served and overly-ambitious singer, off-key but mercifully short-lived. If, as the song says, nothin’ don’t mean nothin’ if it ain’t free, then acquiring McGee for cash considerations from the Red Sox is about as free as it gets in baseball. Hopefully, even if it’s not a long time, it’ll be a good time between Mariners fans and Easton McGee before he inevitably drifts to his next landing spot.