With Aaron Judge going on the injured list yesterday, the Yankees needed to find someone to replace him on the active roster. Enter Billy McKinney, the once-Top 100 prospect who has bounced all around MLB. Currently playing in Triple-A and performing very well with a .274/.388/.511 triple slash and a wRC+ of 127, the 28-year-old McKinney has earned another shot in the major leagues. It also happens to be an elusive full-circle moment for his career.
Once upon a time, McKinney was actually a fine first-round draft pick, as he was selected 24th overall in the 2013 MLB Draft by the Oakland Athletics. He was nabbed eight spots ahead of a certain superstar outfield slugger that he’s replacing on the roster due to injuries. Baseball America didn’t think that McKinney was a reach either, as they had him ranked 27th in their pre-draft evaluations. Check out a portion of their praise:
McKinney has one of the sweetest swings in the 2013 draft, and he has hit his way into the first round with a strong spring. He generates excellent bat speed from the left side of the plate, and he barrels balls with ease thanks to his hand-eye coordination and disciplined approach. ... Scouts love his makeup and are confident that he’ll provide the offense required on an outfield corner.
After playing nine games in Low-A and 75 games in High-A in the Athletics system, he was moved to the Chicago Cubs alongside Addison Russell as one of the main pieces in the Jeff Samardzija trade.
While with the Cubs organization, McKinney harnessed the tools that earned him prospect acclaim. He hit .301/.391/.432 in 51 games for High-A Daytona in 2014, and after blitzing through 29 games at the same level with Myrtle Beach on an .976 OPS run at the start of 2015, he was promoted to Double-A. McKinney had been a Top 100 prospect per Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus prior to ‘15, and after a solid 116 wRC+ in 77 games with Tennessee, he retained Top-100 status in ‘16 with BP and also MLB Pipeline.
This is where the team from The Bronx comes in. The Yankees received McKinney in the trade for closer Aroldis Chapman, which was also the package that included a key piece of the team and current second baseman, Gleyber Torres. Chapman’s run to the World Series with Chicago that year and Torres’ prospect breakout understandably overshadowed McKinney, but while he wasn’t the same caliber of prospect that he once was, he did eventually make his MLB debut with the Yankees in early 2018:
It was no doubt a satisfying moment for McKinney to finally reach The Show, but it was short-lived. He hurt his shoulder in a collision with the Rogers Centre scoreboard in left-center field and had to leave his second career game in the first inning. Then, for the third time already in his young career, McKinney found himself as part of a trade deadline deal. The Yankees then decided to move McKinney along with Brandon Drury to help their pitching rotation, sending him to the Toronto Blue Jays to acquire lefty J.A. Happ.
Now an outfield/first baseman, McKinney played a total of 122 games with the Toronto Blue Jays in his career, slashing .230/.291/.439 with 18 homers over that span. However, he was put on waivers late in the 2020 MLB season and was claimed by the Milwaukee Brewers. He hit poorly and, after 40 games in the 2021, was designated for assignment and eventually traded to the New York Mets for Pedro Quintana, in which time he played 39 games and his best baseball of 2021 by far. He slashed .220/.304/.473 with an OPS+ of 109 and wRC+ of 112.
Unfortunately, the stint with the other team in New York didn’t last long either, as McKinney was moved to the Los Angeles Dodgers and went from playing his best baseball statistically to his worst. He ended his 37 games and 98 plate appearance time on the West Coast with a paltry batting average of .146 and a 46 wRC+. The only good part of it all was that his defensive skill helped him appear in four games off the playoff roster that October.
The Dodgers moved McKinney to the Texas Rangers, but he was non-tendered and became a free agent before signing a minor league deal with the Athletics again and eventually being added to their Opening Day roster for the 2022 season after an invite to spring training. He made it into just 22 games before getting cut with an unsightly OPS+ of -2.
It can often be a death knell for your career to have numbers sink that low. But now, after signing with the Yankees in the offseason as a minor league free agent and non-roster invitee to spring training, he’s back in New York and ready to make an impact.
It’s neat to think about the fact that McKinney has been able to stick around the Triple-A and major-league level enough to make it back to the place where he made his debut. The one thing that has been pretty consistent with him has been the slugging aspect of his game. His career slugging percentage is .387, and losing out on Aaron Judge’s power isn’t something that is easily replaced. However, that number isn’t anything to be scoffed at, and with the ability to man both outfield corners as well as first base, he’s a nice, versatile defender to have around.
There’s no doubt that McKinney has had a wild ride around the baseball world to this point, and the hope is that he’ll be able to get some “redemption” time in The Bronx while he’s here.
We don’t normally do this, but since McKinney had an excellent first day back with the Yankees, we had to highlight it. He started both ends of Thursday’s doubleheader, tripling and scoring on Kyle Higashioka’s double in the opener before going deep in the nightcap for his debut homer in pinstripes—over five years after his debut. Congratulations to him!