tampabay.com

Dominant Vero duo living up to hubbub

Although coaches try to limit hyperbole, the Rays prospects are on a fast track.

By EDUARDO A. ENCINA
Published May 1, 2007


VERO BEACH -- Sometimes R.C. Lichtenstein needs to take a step back and remember where he is.

It's easy for the Vero Beach Devil Rays pitching coach to expect near perfection from his top two starters, left-hander Jake McGee and right-hander Wade Davis. For pundits who look at their high strikeouts and low ERAs, it would be natural to expect the world. And even Lichtenstein, who has seen them pitch for more than a year, gets spoiled.

"They've set the bar so high for themselves that when one of them has a so-so outing, you realize they're still only 20 and 21 years old, " said Lichtenstein, who coached the two last year at low Class A Southwest Michigan. "You feel bad, but you have to say to yourself, he pitched like a 20-year-old today."

In a Tampa Bay system that boasts touted Triple-A pitching talent in Jeff Niemann, Mitch Talbot and Andy Sonnanstine, McGee and Davis represent the next wave at high Class A.

In Baseball America's preseason top-100 prospect rankings, McGee was 37th and Davis 97th after strong performances at Southwest Michigan last year. The publication projects both to crash the big leagues by 2009.

"I think we pretty much dictate when that's going to happen, " said Davis, 21, a 6-foot-5, 220-pounder from Lake Wales. "We can put ourselves in a situation where we make it there earlier or later. At the pace we're going, I think it could be 2009, 2010, 2011. Who knows? I think we dictate it by our performance."

So far, the two have shined. McGee 1.52 and Davis (2.15) rank second and eighth in ERA in the Florida State League. McGee has 27 strikeouts in 232/3 innings. Davis boasts an 0.95 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched).

Although teammates are preparing for a trip to Double-A Montgomery, their teachings are for "a one-way road, going to the big leagues, " Lichtenstein said.

Adding a changeup as a third pitch has been a main focus for both, though they might not need that pitch at this level. Two starts ago, McGee's 95-mph fastball wasn't working through a 40-pitch inning. For the first time, he relied on his changeup, and he threw it 19 of the next 20 times for strikes.

"If one thing's not working, you've just got to figure out what's working that day instead of just relying on your good stuff, " said McGee, 20, a 6-foot-3, 190-pounder from Sparks, Nev.

Meanwhile, Davis has found the value of fastball command and pitching inside.

"They've bought into what's going to make them successful at the big-league level -- not the numbers they've put up in A ball, but making sure that developing the stuff that's going to make them good and stay once they get to the big leagues, " Lichtenstein said.

Ever since they began their pro careers out of high school in 2004 at Rookie League Princeton, they've been mentioned in the same breath. They've made each step along the way side by side. They live together during the season, admit to being equally messy roommates and even finish one another's sentences.

The coaches at Vero Beach think they could be ready for Double A soon and say that when that happens, they should go together. But being two large steps away from the big leagues, anything can happen.

"They feed off that competition, " Vero Beach manager Joe Szekely said. "They push each other. When one goes out, the other one wants to do better. On the outside you don't see it, but on the inside I guarantee you there's a fire you wouldn't believe."

But the Rays have no plans, or needs, to rush the two.

"I get goose bumps talking about them, " said Mitch Lukevics, the Rays director of minor-league operations. "I wish I had that crystal ball, but it's like a potted plant. If you keep taking the plant out of the pot and planting it in a bigger pot, it's not going to grow as well. ... Let's just let them grow in the pot."

Eduardo A. Encina can be reached at eencina@sptimes.com.