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Billy McKinney’s prospect stock is on the rise

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The Yankees acquired McKinney as a reclamation project. It’s starting to work.

MLB: Spring Training-Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Billy McKinney is getting hot, and it couldn’t come at a more perfect time. The former first-rounder saw his prospect stock plummet in recent seasons, but he’s put together a very strong 2017 campaign.

This is only McKinney’s fourth professional season, but the Yankees are his third organization. The Athletics selected him with the 24th pick of the 2013 MLB Draft, but he was in the A’s organization for barely a year before he and Addison Russell were sent to the Cubs in the Jeff Samardzija trade.

With the Cubs, McKinney made it to Double-A as a 20-year-old, but a hairline fracture in his knee prematurely ended his 2015 season. Regardless, MLB had McKinney ranked as the Cubs’ second-best prospect at the end of the season. He was also the 34th-best prospect in all of baseball, one spot ahead of Clint Frazier.

That said, there seemed to be a hangover effect from the injury. In 2016, McKinney’s slugging percentage was down 100 points from the previous season, and his prospect status took a pretty serious hit. His decreased value allowed the Yankees to scoop him up as the third piece in the Gleyber Torres trade last Summer. He became a reclamation project for the Bombers.

After the trade, the Yankees assigned McKinney to Double-A Trenton, but there were no signs of improvement. He raised his slugging percentage a few points, but his on-base percentage fell. His final slash line for all of 2016 was .246/.342/.336. By this point, McKinney’s prospect status cratered. Just one year removed from being a top-40 prospect in all of baseball, McKinney was left off the MLB Top-100 prospects list altogether. Thankfully, it looks like McKinney is finally coming around in 2017.

McKinney did not start spring training in big league camp, but injuries to Mason Williams and Tyler Austin gave him an opportunity. In 20 Grapefruit League appearances, McKinney hit .400/.500/.880 with four walks and only one strikeout. Granted, most of his playing time came in late-innings against minor league-level competition, but signs that he had possibly turned a corner existed.

For example, in 25 spring training at-bats, McKinney launched three home runs. He hit just four in over 400 at-bats the year before. A small sample size, to be sure, but McKinney definitely passed the eye test in spring training.

Unfortunately, the hype didn’t last. As soon as the regular season began, it looked like McKinney turned right back into his 2016-self. For the month of April, he posted a .505 OPS, officially making it the worst month of his professional career.

On the bright side McKinney has quietly put together a serviceable season since April. He had a .905 OPS between May 1st and July 3rd, and he’s slowly adding power to his game. Scouts have always knocked McKinney for his lack of pop, but he has eight home runs on the season. It’s more impressive considering he played most of his games in pitcher-friendly Arm & Hammer Park.

On June 30th, the Yankees rewarded his performance with a call-up to Triple-A. In his short time at the level, McKinney has stayed hot. He had home runs on back-to-back games earlier this week. Here’s his shot from Monday night.

Outside of April, McKinney’s performance this season has been about as good as the Yankees could have hoped. It couldn’t have come at a better time, too. The Yankees’ minor league outfield depth has taken a pretty serious hit in the last week. Frazier has graduated to the big leagues, we may have seen the last of Mason Williams, and I don’t need to remind anyone what happened to Dustin Fowler.

Fortunately, it seems that McKinney could be a Major League option as early as this season. He’ll have to continue to perform at Triple-A, but he could conceivably crack the big league team at some point this year. How the next few months play out are going to be vital to his future with the Yankees. More injuries could result in his MLB debut. On the other hand, if he continues to perform well, McKinney could very easily find himself in yet another organization.

McKinney isn’t currently on the 40-man roster and will be Rule 5 eligible at the end of the season. He needs to be added the 40-man roster or any team could take him from the Yankees for essentially nothing. If not protected, McKinney seems a likely candidate for selection in the Rule 5 Draft.

Although he might not crack the Top-100 prospects again, McKinney’s stock is certainly up from last year. His 2017 campaign leads me to believe that maybe last season’s poor performance was tied to his knee injury in 2015. His continued performance will certainly land him in the big leagues at some point.