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01/22/10 9:25 PM ET

McGee's detour nearing its end

Rays prospect fully healthy after elbow surgery in 2008

ST. PETERSBURG -- Jake McGee's detour appears near its completion, and he's now headed back for the main path to the Major Leagues, a destination forecast for the left-hander prior to the 2008 season.

McGee has the goods. He throws left-handed, stands 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, and, oh yeah, he throws a lively 95-mph fastball.

Unfortunately for McGee and the Rays, he felt soreness in his left elbow after his first 15 starts for Double-A Montgomery in 2008. He didn't hear a pop and there wasn't any swelling, but the soreness caused him to leave the game. Taking every precaution, the Rays sent McGee for an MRI, which revealed that his ulnar collateral ligament was completely torn. After a second opinion validated the first, McGee headed to Birmingham, Ala., where Dr. James Andrews performed season-ending Tommy John ligament replacement surgery.

Downtrodden over his plight, McGee took solace in the fact doctors told him that the chances were that the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow would be stronger once he returned to baseball.

That return began last season, but it didn't come without setbacks.

"I thought I was going to be back sooner, like June or July [of 2009], but then I had tightness in my forearm," McGee said. "So then I just kind of went along with it. I didn't want to rush it too much because I knew that I just wanted to get back healthy and then I'd have an opportunity this spring to be back 100 percent healthy and pitch."

McGee pitched in five games for the Gulf Coast League Rays and went 0-2 with a 3.52 ERA before going 0-2 with a 6.45 ERA for Class A Charlotte of the Florida State League. All told, he pitched 30 innings in 2009.

Rays manager Joe Maddon believes that McGee gained a lot from clearing the hurdle of simply returning to the mound last season.

"The fact he was able to throw in a game last year toward the end of the season, I think really eased his mind going into the off-season a bit," Maddon said. "He thinks by the end of this spring or by the beginning of the season he'll be back to his velocity of the past."

McGee agreed with the Rays manager.

"It was huge for me," McGee said. "Especially getting back 100 percent. I didn't want to end the year without my velocity being back. And I wanted to feel like my other pitches were getting better, especially with locating my pitches and all of that. It felt really good when I was throwing three innings, recovering well and getting all of my strength back."

After 14 months of rehab, McGee said this offseason felt like a normal offseason in which he was able to employ a regular throwing program to get ready for camp rather than countless hours rehabbing. Much of the anguish he encountered through the process of returning now fuels him.

"It was kind of tough mentally to go through all the rehab while seeing guys that I had play with or against getting to the big leagues," McGee said. "It just made me want to work that much harder to get up there and show what I can do."

McGee is kind of a wild card as far as what his future might be with the Rays. He can be a starter, a setup man, or a closer. The big lefty said he's happy with whatever the Rays want to do with him.

"I'm just going to go into camp with the attitude that I'll do whatever I can to help the team," McGee said. "If I'll be out of the bullpen, start. If I'll go long relief then short relief. It doesn't really matter to me, whatever it takes to get to the big leagues."

While McGee remains a top prospect for the Rays, Maddon cautions that the likelihood is slim that McGee will break camp with the Rays.

"He's coming off an injury, a bad injury," Maddon said. "He's missed a lot of time. For me, I almost believe he's got to go out and pitch right now. He's not really pitched at a high level. You're asking a lot from a young man after he's come off all that adversity and then ask him to come in here and help you on the Major League team. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's unlikely."

Even if McGee doesn't reach his goal out of Spring Training, he will have reached another goal by just wearing a uniform again.

"The whole process has made me appreciate baseball a lot more," McGee said. "Especially rehabbing that long and playing in the Gulf Coast League with the young guys again, then going to high A with them. Makes me realize how much more you appreciate it when you don't have it."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.