For now, prospects' main job is to absorb

Promising power arms McGee and Wade immerse themselves in first big-league camp.

By Joe Smith, Times Staff Writer
Published March 8, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - Long after most of the Rays regulars and fans filed out of Progress Energy Park on Friday, scouts began to percolate behind the plate.

As touted Rays pitching prospects Jake McGee and Wade Davis fired fastballs, radar guns clicked as the duo delivered the stadium's only sound: the ball smacking against John Jaso's catcher's mitt. Pop. Pop. Pop.

McGee, the laid-back lefty, and Davis, the stern-faced right-hander, were in mop-up duty, throwing in the final two practice innings after the Rays' 9-1 win over the Phillies.

"Seniority," McGee quipped with a grin.

McGee and Davis, two of Baseball America's top-20 prospects, have gotten their feet wet in their first big-league camp, soaking in advice from veterans - and taking their lumps on the mound - while knowing they'll likely soon be headed back to bus rides at Double-A Montgomery.

The Rays believe the soft-spoken starters have the potential upside of a Scott Kazmir or James Shields, and pitching coach Jim Hickey said it's not a stretch that McGee and Davis could compete for a rotation spot as early as the 2009 season.

"With prospects, everyone thinks they'll be the next Hall of Famer, the next Tom Glavine," veteran reliever Trever Miller said. "But it comes down to three things: work ethic, ability and blessing - a little bit of luck. If (McGee and Davis) can accomplish those three things, they have no ceiling. They're masters of their own destiny."

But first, McGee and Davis must master their craft, honing everything from their mental approach to their off-speed command.

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound McGee has what infielder Eric Hinske calls a "B.J. Ryan body," and a blistering fastball (tops at 97-98 mph) and nasty curve. Davis (6-5, 220), a strike-thrower as much as a flamethrower, averages in the low to mid 90s and boasts an improving changeup.

McGee, 21, and Davis, 22, overpowered hitters in Class A Vero Beach and Double-A Montgomery last season, finishing as the organization's top two minor-league pitchers in strikeouts, 175 for McGee and 169 for Davis.

Both agreed their adrenaline got the best of them in their rocky Rays debuts - McGee allowed all five Reds batters to reach base, and Davis gave up a homer to his first hitter.

"I threw a lot of pitches that would have been strikes (in Double A)," McGee said. "But here, they're not."

Manager Joe Maddon calls the duo "special," saying "they're both going to be very good major-league pitchers." But for now, he just wanted the prospects to get a feel for the big-league surroundings. Though McGee and Davis are typically quiet in the clubhouse, their professionalism and work habits befit players beyond their years in pro baseball, according to Hickey.

The longtime roommates have helped each other ease their nerves along the way. They'll go fishing in bay area hot spots or relax via video games.

They finish each other's sentences when saying how their confidence and comfort level will be different next spring.

"Our mental approach will be a heck of a lot better," Davis said. "It'll be, 'Hey, we've got a chance to make it this year; let's get out there and do it.'"