As spring training gets into full swing, overlooked prospect Billy McKinney has established a surprisingly solid case for a shot at making the big league club.
As New York Yankee fans know, this year’s position battles have been solely focused on second base and third base. There are also very publicized position battles for center field and the fifth spot in the rotation, although those spots are most likely locked up by Aaron Hicks and Jordan Montgomery respectively.
Amidst the chaos, no one seems to be talking about one of the more intriguing prospects making his case for a spot on the Yankees, that prospect being Billy McKinney.
On the surface, it doesn’t feel like McKinney even has a remote shot at making the team this year. He’s an outfielder by trade, meaning to crack the majors he’s going to need to leapfrog Clint Frazier, who is clearly the next-in-line outfield prospect, as well as steal a spot from Brett Gardner or Aaron Hicks while simultaneously hoping the Yankees can finally cut ties with Jacoby Ellsbury to free up a roster spot. That’s a lot of mountains to climb in just a few short weeks.
So instead of trying to make it out of camp with the Yankees as an outfielder, he’s trying to do it as a first baseman. McKinney has been working out at first for quite some time, as well as getting ample playing time at the position in the Arizona Fall League. He’s only 22 years old and he handles himself well at the plate.
To be clear, he isn’t a better player than Tyler Wade or Tyler Austin. But Austin has had trouble staying healthy and Wade will likely spend most of his time off the bench in the middle infield and at third. What makes McKinney such an intriguing prospect is his willingness to play first and his ability to play the outfield, particularly center field.
The name of the game for McKinney’s major league case is the versatility that he can provide. We all know that Brian Cashman holds flexibility in high regard, and having a bench of McKinney, Wade, and Austin Romine provides an unmatched balance between prospect development and team flexibility. Having a backup catcher is 100 percent necessary, so the ability to have two bench players that can fill in at literally any position out on the field is extremely valuable.
It allows Aaron Boone complete flexibility when it comes to giving guys rest, it gifts the team the ability to carry an extra reliever, and it gives two extremely talented prospects the chance to see fairly regular playing time at the major league level while developing defensively at multiple positions. While McKinney might not be the best or most major league ready prospect in the system, he brings a lot of value to the team through his versatility.
However, that’s not to say that McKinney isn’t extremely talented. At age 22, he’s already shown an ability to produce solid offensive numbers. In fact, according to Baseball Reference, McKinney hit .306 in over 200 at-bats during his time in Scranton. He has a career OBP of .355. While his average has fluctuated at different levels, that OBP has remained solid, meaning even when he isn’t swinging the bat well, he’s finding ways to get on base. That is a huge factor when considering he is still just a 22-year-old kid learning how to play at the professional level.
Additionally, very much considered my worst quality by the people I talk baseball with, I place an enormous amount of value on the eye-test when I evaluate players. So when I evaluate a player like Billy McKinney, I see the solid statistics he has put together but also his approach to the game. When I watch McKinney at the plate, I see a simple, easy-to-repeat swing with quick hands and power that comes from the lower half of his body. He goes right after the ball without a lot of extra movement, and that is a recipe for success and consistency in today’s game.
In conclusion, it’s extremely unlikely that McKinney will be with the team come April. Until Ellsbury decides to release the team as his hostage, Wade is the only prospect with a chance to remain with the Yankees because of his ability to fill in as the backup first baseman, although even he is facing an extreme amount of pressure from a Miguel Andujar that is on an absolute warpath this spring.
In my opinion, the bench will likely be comprised of either Wade or Andujar, Ellsbury, Ronald Torreyes, and Romine with one less arm in the bullpen. Frazier and Gleyber Torres will begin the year in Scranton until injury strikes or a trade occurs. McKinney will become an afterthought to fans clamoring for the big-name prospects to be brought up.
But if he continues to hone his ability at the plate and makes strides defensively at first base, it may not be long before he’s knocking on the door of the Yankees.