When the Colorado Rockies traded Corey Dickerson the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday afternoon, it's probably understandable if many fans in Denver saw the return—left-handed reliever Jake McGee—and said wait, who?
Not because McGee is bad—far from it, actually—but probably more because the Rockies and Rays just don't see each other very often. If you're like me, you're not incredibly familiar with relievers on small market teams in the American League East, the opposite of which is probably also true of Rays fans looking at Dickerson right now.
So let's take some steps to correct that. On Friday morning, we published an exhaustive player profile on McGee; today, we'll do you one better, and go right to an expert on the pitcher. I caught up with Ian Malinowski, an editor for our fellow SB Nation site DRays Bay, to discuss how McGee fits in Denver, what Rockies fans should expect from the big lefty, and what the hell is going on with all those fastballs.
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Bobby DeMuro: To start with the trade itself, just looking at the big leaguers, how do you evaluate McGee-for-Dickerson? What does this look like from the Rays' perspective?
Ian Malinowski: The Rays front office doesn't believe in rebuilding. They say that they make their moves with the philosophy of trying to help the team both now and in the future at the same time, and for the most part they back that up. That's why I'm really not surprised that while the other teams trading elite relievers this offseason brought back prospects, the Rays went for a Major League player with more years of team control than what they gave up (four years for Dikerson, two years for McGee).
The fit goes beyond the raw number of years, though. The Rays struggled mightily last year against right-handed pitchers, and mid-season acquisitions of Daniel Nava and Grady Sizemore were weak attempts at fixing that problem. Dickerson is a better player than either of those guys, and if healthy, he probably immediately becomes the Rays' best hitter against righties.
Of course, the cost is real. The Rays had to give up quality to get it. There's a chance that other players step up and the Rays don't miss McGee at all. There's also a chance that the Rays bullpen is just really poor next season. He was the surest thing the Rays had by a long shot.
BD: McGee compares surprisingly favorably in some ways to a guy like Craig Kimbrel, though obviously not quite as good. What are the Rockies getting here, a lefty power arm who is equally reliable against righties, or just a REALLY good set-up guy who should probably face mostly lefties?
IM: Well, that's not a surprise to Rays fans. McGee is great. It's not really right to look at it as McGee having lost his job to Brad Boxberger during the season. He was the better pitcher, and Boxberger started getting saves because McGee wasn't available to start the season because of offseason surgery. Once McGee got back up to speed, he could have slid back into the closer role easily enough, but if we're being honest, the Rays were more than happy to give him seventh and eighth inning work because accumulating saves drives up arbitration costs (which they don't have to worry about for Boxberger quite yet).
McGee is a one-pitch pitcher, but in the conversion to ponies that comes out as more than one trick. He has a normal lefty split in some pitching stats and a reverse split in others, but the point is that he can sit down both lefties and righties. Against lefties, he pounds the outside of the zone, and against righties he uses the entire strike zone. It works because he has really good command of his explosive fastball.
There's a slowly improving curve that's in the mix now, too. He rarely uses it, but when he can locate it in the strike zone, hitters miss. That pitch hasn't made an impact for McGee for the Rays, partly because his fastball is too good to not use, but it's possible you guys see more of it in the coming years.
BD: McGee throws his fastball so much, how do you see that playing in a park distinctly different from the Trop? Coors has killed many a pitcher, but does he have the repertoire and variables to succeed somewhere like Denver based on his stuff?
IM: Yes, McGee has very good command of his fastball, so he can change location when he wants. He's not a ground ball pitcher, but while I assume he'll give up a few more home runs, I don't expect him to struggle in Coors Field any more than the next guy.
His low career HR/FB rate (8%) and BABIP (.276) are a reflection of the fact that hitters have a really hard time squaring up his fastball, even though they know it's coming. Not to belabor the point, but yes, between the velocity, movement, delivery, and location, Jake McGee's fastball is just that good.
BD: It's been a real long road for McGee in the Rays' organization after being drafted in 2004 out of high school. After 11 (!) years with Tampa Bay, are fans bittersweet to see him go? Or was it just time?
IM: Oh yeah, very bittersweet. He's actually the longest-tenured player in the Rays organization, and save numbers aside, savvy Rays fans have known for three and a half years that he was our best reliever. Closers came and went, but McGee was always there to pick up the slack.
I of course knew about him when he was a starting pitcher prospect, but I never saw him in the minors. After Tommy John surgery moved him to the bullpen for good I sort of stopped paying attention, so I remember the aha moment I had with McGee. The Rays were slipping out of a playoff race, and it was hard to find reasons to care, and then here comes Jake McGee. I watched him pitch, switched over to Brooks Baseball to look at the PITCHf/x, and said to myself "Whoa! This guy is special."
BD: How concerned should we be about injuries, especially after a tough year for health last season? Is McGee fully healthy now, or are the Rockies rolling the dice on a guy who might struggle with injuries during his time in Denver, too?
IM: Injuries are always a concern, but McGee is actually a pretty dependable guy. His elbow surgery in the minors was many years ago at this point, and he's shown the ability to stay healthy in a relief role. The surgery before the 2015 season to remove loose bodies was, to my understanding, not very serious and not indicative of larger problems. A meniscus surgery like McGee had is something where you can basically walk right out of the operating room. It means he'll probably have arthritis in that knee when he's 50, but I doubt Rockies fans will care.
I'll put it this way -- I'm not an injury expert, but I was less concerned about McGee's health going into this season than about most of the Rays' arms.
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Image via Jared Wickerham/Getty Images