Toolshed: McKinney finding place with Yanks

No. 19 prospect getting time at first, thriving at plate in spring

Billy McKinney produced an .877 OPS over 55 games with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last season. (Mark LoMoglio/MiLB.com)

By Sam Dykstra / MiLB.com | March 9, 2018 10:45 AM

TAMPA, Florida -- The first baseman's mitt was buried under some other baseball equipment back home in north Texas. It had largely gone untouched since the days at Plano West High School. Billy McKinney had been drafted 34th overall by the A's in 2013 and moved full-time to the outfield, primarily in center to begin his career. A year later, he was traded to the Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Chicago gave him time in the corner outfield spots, but after a rough offensive spell at Double-A Tennessee to begin 2016, he was dealt again, this time to the Yankees -- along with Gleyber TorresRashad Crawford and Adam Warren -- in a megadeal that sent Aroldis Chapman to Chicago's North Side for a World Series run.

Then, after an impressive season at the plate in 2017, McKinney was settling in for his fifth professional offseason when another call came. This one was from Yankees fielding coordinator Jody Reed. Could McKinney get that mitt out of storage in time for the Arizona Fall League? For McKinney, there was no doubt.

"Once I got the call, I was excited. I said, 'Heck yeah, let's go,'" McKinney laughed. "It's really nice playing all the time. The only thing I'll say is you just have to get used to those travel days when you say goodbye to your family. But once you do that, you're ready to roll. I was excited for the opportunity."

That opportunity that came with that first baseman's mitt -- McKinney's agent would later send him a new one -- could be enough to punch the No. 19 Yankees prospect's ticket to The Show for a club that may have the deepest stable of outfielders the game has seen in years.

Before first base or the AFL could even become an option, the left-handed hitter had to show major improvement at the plate. McKinney was always highly regarded for his ability to make consistent contact and his plate discipline, but questions about his power were getting louder. In 2016, he struggled in all facets offensively, hitting just .246/.342/.338 with four home runs in 123 Double-A games. Once ranked as highly as the No. 34 overall prospect in the game, he wasn't even the headlining prospect in the Chapman deal.

McKinney returned to Trenton to begin 2017 and saw modest improvements, hitting .250/.339/.431 over 69 games while already beating his previous season's home run total with six blasts. But it was a promotion to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on June 30 -- after 269 career games at Double-A -- when a light bulb turn on. McKinney hit .306/.336/.541 with 10 homers in 55 games for the RailRiders. That homer total alone eclipsed three of his previous four full-season totals. His 140 wRC+ was 11th-best among International League hitters with at least 200 plate appearances. Miguel Andujar -- the slugger trying to make the Major League club this spring -- ranked 12th at 139. 

Offseason MiLB include

The organization believes McKinney may have just needed a change of scenery and a chance to see pitchers who could fill the strike zone on a regular basis. 

"I think he was a little bit unlucky at times in Trenton," said director of player development Kevin Reese. "His numbers weren't spectacular, but we looked at the quality of contact and quality of at-bats over time and he was better than his numbers showed. He continued that [at Triple-A]. I don't think there was a major adjustment. I think another thing that happens is when you have pitchers who have a little bit more of a plan, you can predict what they're about to do, as opposed to Double-A where it can be more random, even if it's supposed to be harder for everyone at Triple-A. That's just better for some guys, especially someone like him."

Because of McKinney's late surge and his upcoming Rule 5 Draft eligibility, the Yankees wanted to see if he could carry it to the AFL -- but with an added caveat. New York already had four Major League-quality outfielders in Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge, All-Stars Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury and valuable center fielder Aaron Hicks. And that was before they added National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton. The bigger need would potentially be at first base, where Greg Bird was coming off a lackluster year and Tyler Austin hadn't quite seized the role either. Versatility can be a Minor League's best friend, and with McKinney having at least some history at the position, it wasn't hard for both sides to agree to see whether he could fit at first.

Carrying his old glove, McKinney reported back to Tampa for quick drills at his old position before moving to Arizona, where he made 10 of his 17 starts at first base. The early reports were that he was a work in progress, but that progress had indeed been made. He continued to show enough with the bat as well, hitting .279/.373/.426 over 83 plate appearances, to earn a spot on the AFL All-Prospect Team. On Nov. 20 -- five days after his last game with Scottsdale -- McKinney was added to the Yankees' 40-man.

"He showed some quick adaptability that was somewhat surprising but not that surprising considering he played there some in high school," Reese said. "There's still some room to grow as far as first-base stuff goes, but I think when you're in his position and you look around and see the guys that we have in the outfield, by putting him on the roster we value the guy. We're trying to find ways to get creative and get the guy's bat in the lineup when he's ready. He's shown some good strides. He gets you good, consistent at-bats, has good plate discipline and has shown the ability to make you pay if you make a mistake."

As he did in the fall, McKinney hasn't let the opportunity of his first Spring Training as a 40-man member go by the wayside. After hitting a grand slam Wednesday against the Mets, he's gone deep in four of his 23 Grapefruit League plate appearances, tying him with Andujar for the team lead in home runs. He's gone 5-for-16 with six walks and four strikeouts in his 10 games this spring, playing three games at first and splitting the rest between left and right. 

While others might be intimidated by being the seventh or eighth outfielder on the depth chart and the third or fourth first baseman following the recent signing of Adam Lind, McKinney is embracing his chance to just be a legitimate option. He's leaned on the established Major League stars around him to ask about how to approach certain counts and other hitting situations and credits that on-the-fly education with his results in Florida.

"I wouldn't say anything to do with me," McKinney said. "I try to be the same whether it's the spring or during the season. I'd just say it's the guys around me helping a lot. Judge, Ellsbury, Hicks, all of them, Stanton now, all of them have helped me with my swing and my approach. I just have to listen to them. They're the ones with all the knowledge, so it's a lot of fun."

Beyond all that advice, the Yankees veterans have embraced McKinney as one of their own -- not as competition for positions but, with an improved bat and new glove, a piece that could potentially help the big club win games in 2018.

"I feel comfortable," McKinney said. "I'm glad to play first base as well. I've been grateful to learn from Greg and Tyler. They've been very helpful -- just completely open arms with me. Greg actually asked me yesterday to work on some picks with him, so I said, 'Yeah, let's do it.' It's pretty cool that they're seeking me out like that."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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