Tampa Bay Rays’ Jake McGee A Cautionary Tale for Bruce Rondon, Detroit Tigers


All offseason, the Detroit Tigers have been adamant that they’re not going to sign a veteran closer like Rafael Soriano and will instead give top prospect Bruce Rondon every chance to win their closer job. Rondon has pitched a grand total of 8 innings at the Triple-A level and 29.2 innings above A-ball, but the Tigers would argue that Rondon’s stuff is good enough that it doesn’t matter. With a fastball routinely hitting triple-digits and a pair of solid secondary pitches that have their moments in a slider and changeup, Rondon has the repertoire to be a closer and a dominant one, maybe as soon as next season. But if recent history tells us anything, the Tigers’ decision to give Rondon the opportunity to be their closer could severely backfire and the Tigers better have a Plan B.

In 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays lacked a clear closer option. Rafael Soriano, who had been so dominant for them the previous season, had left to sign with the Yankees. J.P. Howell was dealing with a shoulder injury. Kyle Farnsworth was a major question mark and had saved just 1 game since 2006. And even veteran relievers Joel Peralta and Juan Cruz had a combined 5 saves on their resumes. So who would the Rays’ closer be? Everyone’s assumption was fireballing rookie left-hander Jake McGee.

McGee, 24 years old at the time, had been a top starting pitching prospect for the Rays for years, but after 2008 Tommy John Surgery put his durability and future into question, the Rays elected to convert him into a relief role at the end of the 2010 season. The results were incredible. The Rays promoted McGee from Double-A to Triple-A to work out of the bullpen for the first time and he was absolutely untouchable, managing a 0.52 ERA and a ridiculous 27-3 strikeout to walk ratio in 11 relief appearances and 17.1 innings pitched. He was so good that the Rays could not resist the opportunity to call him up to the major leagues, and he continued to impress, managing a 1.80 ERA and a 6-3 strikeout to walk ratio in 8 appearances and 5 innings pitched. After such an impressive season, the following spring training, the expectations for McGee were high. Armed with a mid-to-high-90’s fastball with heavy sink and run along with a breaking ball with sharp, tight break, the sky was the limit for McGee, and especially with no better options available in the Rays’ bullpen, a rookie season as the Rays’ closer seemed to be in the wings. McGee was obviously going to have his ups and downs, but his stuff was so electric that by the end of the season he would establish himself as a more than competent closer who within a couple years was going to be one of the best relievers in baseball.

What happened to McGee? He began 2011 on the Rays’ major league roster but struggled mightily in April, managing just a 5.14 ERA, a 2-3 strikeout to walk ratio, and a .367 batting average against in 11 appearances in 7 innings pitched, and the Rays sent him down to Triple-A following the month. McGee returned to the majors in July and wound up being enigmatic all season, managing a 4.50 ERA, an 8.7 K/9, a 3.9 BB/9, and a horrific 1.6 HR/9 in 37 appearances and 28 innings pitched. What went wrong? McGee’s stuff was electric, but he was very dependent on his fastball as he couldn’t get a consistent feel from his breaking ball and hitters quickly figured him out. The good news for the Rays was that Farnsworth wound up being a major surprise, managing a 2.18 ERA, a 51-12 strikeout to walk ratio, and a career-high 25 saves in 63 appearances and 57.2 innings pitched, and Farnsworth turned out being a pivotal piece of the Rays’ improbable playoff run. But if Farnsworth had never experienced that sudden breakthrough at age 35, the Rays would have been in serious trouble.

We know that in 2012 for the Rays, McGee was absolutely unhittable, managing a 1.95 ERA, an 11.9 K/9, a 1.8 BB/9, and a 0.5 HR/9 in 69 appearances and 55.1 innings pitched as hitters were blown away by his fastball and couldn’t even keep track of his slider. But even as a pitcher who had that type of performance in him, McGee struggled mightily as a rookie and it looks everything like the Rays and especially their fans expected too much from him too soon. Beyond Bruce Rondon, the Tigers have other closer options in Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, and ex-Ray Joaquin Benoit. But Detroit better take a hard look at that trio knowing that one of them could very well end up as their closer next season and still be confident that they’ll be able to find late-inning solutions among their in-house options should Rondon falter. Rondon might dominate big league hitters from Day 1- no one doubts that he has the raw stuff to do just that- but anything can happen, and the Tigers better be prepared.