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Yankees prospects: Can Billy McKinney make the Opening Day roster?

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It’s a long shot, but if everything breaks his way, there’s a chance.

MLB: Spring Training-Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees
“This is my make-the-roster face!”
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Brian Cashman’s had his eyes on Billy McKinney since the 2013 draft, and as always, Cashman got his man. McKinney hadn’t really broken out as a prospect so the Yankees were able to get him as a throw-in piece in the Aroldis Chapman-Gleyber Torres deal. Before spring training last year, Jason Cohen issued a challenge to McKinney. The 2017 season represented McKinney’s last chance, and he was up for the challenge.

McKinney impressed enough in Double-A to earn a promotion to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He hit 10 home runs in 55 games while slashing .306/.336/.541 (140 wRC+) for the RailRiders. He brought himself back and reemerged as a true prospect. In fact, he was good enough to be named Pinstripe Alley’s Minor League Comeback Player of the Year.

Although McKinney’s bat was back, he still had a problem defensively. In addition to not being great in the outfield, there was a logjam ahead of him. He made the switch to first base, making his debut in the Arizona Fall League, and has continued playing in spring training this year. That versatility could make him really valuable to the Yankees, especially considering how their roster is constructed.

If everyone was healthy, the Yankees would break camp with five outfielders. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner, and Jacoby Ellsbury would all be locks to make the Opening Day roster. Obviously Greg Bird is penciled in to be the starter at first base, but he’s without any true backup. That’s McKinney’s opening. Both Tyler Austin and Adam Lind are ahead of McKinney on the depth chart, but each come with their questions.

Austin has his own health concerns and so far hasn’t done much to impress this spring. Lind was signed to a minor-league deal, but he has an opt-out at the end of camp; he’s no guarantee to stick with the club past March. If he hits well enough, he might find a better opportunity elsewhere. If he hits poorly, the Yankees might not bring him north and he could latch on with another team.

Obviously this is all a long shot, but the way McKinney’s been hitting this spring, it’s not far-fetched to imagine he’s giving the Yankees something to think about. He’s slashed .313/.522/1.063 with four home runs during Grapefruit League action. That’s including this grand slam against the Mets on Wednesday:

It’s not just his home runs that are getting noticed either. It’s all of his at-bats — even his strikeouts.

“It’s just quality at-bat after quality at-bat,” Boone said. “He had a strikeout (in Tuesday’s game) where I thought he actually worked a work.”

Boone didn’t stop there ...

”The way that he runs the bases, the way that he gets his leads ... The ability to show now that he can play a little base, and he’s played it well, so that just adds to his versatility. He’s really impressed me all the way around.”

New manager Aaron Boone sang McKinney’s praises on Wednesday. He went on to say, “he’s somebody that certainly has caught my eye.” McKinney came to spring as a man on a mission and his hard work is not going unnoticed.

In all likelihood, McKinney still starts the year in Triple-A. If he continues doing what he’s doing, he may very well end up being a solid trade chip for some pitching or anything the Yankees may need come July. That said, the door’s slightly open for him to go north with the team for Opening Day.

Considering Ellsbury (oblique) and Clint Frazier (concussion) are battling injuries, Austin and Lind are no locks, and just the simple fact that he’s mashing, McKinney could be a dark horse candidate to make the roster. His ability to play in the outfield and back up first base can only help, since the Yankees are emphasizing versatility.

If all the dominoes fall in place, (extremely Jim Carrey-voice) I’m telling you there’s a chance.

*Season statistics provided courtesy of MLB.com, FanGraphs, and Baseball Reference.