The Yankees had been eyeing Billy McKinney for years. Before they acquired him from the Cubs in the Aroldis Chapman trade, McKinney was thought to be one of the best pure hitters in the 2013 MLB Draft, and he was projected to be selected in the first round, right around the Yankees’ 26th overall pick. The Athletics drafted him two spots ahead, and so Brian Cashman and company went with Eric Jagielo for their first pick that year.
I remember covering the draft, remember McKinney being a name tossed around for the Yankees in multiple mock drafts, and I remember being disappointed when he got away. However, if there is one thing I have learned about Cashman while covering this team (and I have surely learned more than one thing) it’s that Brian Cashman always gets his man. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, if he takes interest in you, you’ll be a Yankee eventually. We’ve seen it so many times before.
There was a time where McKinney had all the upside in the world. He was praised for his hit tool and his contact skills, and throughout his career he’s lived up to those expectations pretty well. He hit over .300 in rookie ball and short season as an 18-year-old. Oakland must have seen what he was capable of with the bat and decided it was okay for him to skip Low-A and move right on up to High-A in 2014. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work out, and the results were far less stellar than the previous year.
That summer, he was traded in the Jeff Samardzija deal that moved both McKinney and Addison Russell to Chicago. His hitting drastically improved when he arrived at High-A Daytona, and he was consider to be part of the Cubs’ bright future alongside Russell, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez. Before the 2015 season, McKinney was ranked in the back of the top 100 prospects in baseball, according to Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. He had a smooth left-handed swing, good bat speed, great hand-eye coordination, and an advanced approach at the plate. Everything you want to see from a prospect.
Unfortunately, McKinney had always been considered a bat-first outfielder with little in the way of defensive capabilities. He stopped playing in center after leaving Oakland and primarily played right field, despite not having the arm usually associated with the position. He was expected to make enough solid contact to reach 20 home runs a year, however, in four professional season he has only hit double-digit dingers once.
Things started falling apart for him in 2015. He still managed a .976 OPS over 125 plate appearances in High-A, so the Cubs moved him up to Double-A Tennessee. Once there, his OPS fell back down to .766 and his season ended prematurely when he fouled a ball off his knee and suffered a stress fracture in August.
That offseason, Baseball America dropped him from their list. He repeated Double-A, and this time his OPS fell to .677 while his batting average remained below .300. The Cubs shipped him off in the Aroldis Chapman trade and nothing seemed to get better for him. Whether he never fully recovered from his knee injury or not, McKinney hardly looked like the high-potential player he was just a few years prior.
Now here we are heading toward the 2017 season and McKinney just received an invitation to Yankees spring training. He’s there to fill in for the injured Tyler Austin, so he wasn’t really considered worthy of MLB camp until now. McKinney is 22 and heading into his third season at Double-A. He isn’t exactly old, but it’s looking like maybe he needed more seasoning before he was pushed through the minor leagues. Skipping Low-A might not have been fair for him.
While McKinney clearly has enough skill to put the bat on the ball and take a walk, he has far too many weaknesses to look like a future everyday player. He’s a corner outfielder with no glove, no arm, and no power. The knee doesn’t help him either. Maybe he has a future as a singles hitter, but do the Yankees really need that? Do they have the roster space for that?
McKinney will be Rule 5 eligible next offseason, and he is the type of player who gets chosen and given a chance somewhere else in spring training. If the Yankees see anything in him, they will need to protect him before then. If they don’t then it might not matter because other teams probably aren’t going to bother. The thing to remember is that the Yankees already have a singles hitter with a better glove in Jake Cave, and they don’t seem to want him either.
Unless McKinney suddenly unlocks something deep within him, what chance does he really have of sticking around here? The 2017 season will be key for him. If he can remain healthy and get his bat up to what it was doing earlier in his career, he may have a chance to stick around and actually crack the big leagues. He’s tottering on the edge right now, we’ll see this year which way he falls.