Although he does not turn 21 until August, Billy McKinney already has opened eyes with a mature approach and advanced plate discipline in his first two years in the Minors.
The sweet-swinging outfielder received a $1.8 million signing bonus after Oakland selected him in the first round of the 2013 Draft, and his stock rose so much within his first 12 months as a pro that he was part of the package sent to Chicago when the Cubs moved Jeff Samardzija to the West Coast last June.
A graduate of Texas' Plano West Senior High School, McKinney batted .264 with 11 homers and 69 RBIs at two Class A Advanced stops last year. Surrounded by some of baseball's best young talent, McKinney hopes to thrive on the in-house competition as he makes his way through Chicago's system.
MiLB.com caught up with the Cubs' seventh-ranked prospect to talk about his offseason routine, how being mentally strong helps him deal with the physical grind of a long season and why sometimes he just has to splurge on a late-night pizza.
MiLB.com: It's a little more than two months to Opening Day. How's the offseason been?
Billy McKinney: It's going well and I'm looking forward to getting back out there. I'm getting the itch. The offseason has been treating me really well and it's really nice getting back home and seeing family and friends and getting a little break from the grind. But after a good amount of time, you just want to get back out there and start hitting balls again.
I probably started working out in early November and started hitting in early or mid-December back home here in Dallas. I'm working out with other people I've worked out with my entire life, like my hitting instructor and some buddies from back home.
MiLB.com: Is there any one area of your game that you're specifically working on?
McKinney: Working on just being consistent. When it comes to hitting, I try to work on keeping the same swing every time and not really changing things up. When it comes to lifting, just doing the right lifts and talking with my agency and listening to what they say I can do to keep healthy and keep my muscles strong. I want to be on the field every day that I can.
MiLB.com: In terms of your offseason routine, what's a typical day like?
McKinney: A regular day, I'm one of those guys that tries to get some sleep. I like eight to 10 hours, so the time I go to bed determines what time I wake up. I'll get up, get something to eat, sit around 15-20 minutes to get my body up and ready. Then I'll go hit with my instructor, hit off a tee, soft toss, then take some live BP.
After that, I'll go to the track to do my running. Some days I'll sprint it out and maybe run a mile or two, other days it's agility work when I'll try to work on quick bursts. As an outfielder, you want to be as fast as you can to get jumps on balls and get good reads. And then after that, I'll go to the gym. Depending on the day, I'll either do an upper-body or lower-body workout.
MiLB.com: How different is this routine to what you'll do during the season?
McKinney: When it comes to eating, it's definitely different from the regular season compared with offseason because you have different eating schedules because you're playing when it's dinner time. You almost have to have two dinners, one at 4 o'clock as your pregame meal and then something after.
I just try to eat as healthy as I can. I splurge sometimes, but I try to keep it as healthy as I can to keep my body feeling good. The road trips are the toughest to get healthy food because after the game you're going back to the hotel and everything is closed because it's 11:30 at night, so you have to phone in a pizza.
MiLB.com: You played in a career-high 126 games between two teams last year. How did the body hold up?
McKinney: I felt good. I was actually very pleased and I thanked the Lord for staying healthy. I had some aches and pains on some days, and I didn't feel too well for a few games, but that's just the grind of the game. I just had to battle through and play my best, but I felt pretty well, so I was pleased.
It's a mental grind and you just have to try as hard as you can to stay focused at the park every day. You just have to take each at-bat as a new at-bat because you don't want to give any away, which I learned this year. Sometimes you get tired and fatigued and that's when you give away at-bats, which is something you never want to do.
MiLB.com: How much of that grind is mental compared with physical?
McKinney: They're both very excruciating, mentally and physically. But the mental part relates to the physical part because if you think positive and think that you're gonna feel good today, that helps the mental thing. If you go up there saying you don't feel good and that you're going to be sluggish, you're probably not going to play the best you can. You have to trick yourself into always thinking you feel good to play well.
MiLB.com: You spent half the year in the California League, the other half in the Florida State League. They're both the same level, but did you notice any major differences?
McKinney: As a hitter, they're both at a high level, so it's just great pitching all around, facing those guys. The biggest difference for me was that in California it never rained, so you got to get your reps in every day. But in Florida, it rained every day at 3 or 4 o'clock, so there were a lot of days you didn't get to take BP and you had to get cage work instead.
It was tough to have a true regimen when it came to Florida, whereas in California you know you're getting BP every day and you know you'll get all your work in in the outfield. It depends on the player, but I like to take BP in the cage and on the field. I'm fine with both. Some days, if I want to take a few less swings because it is a long grind of a season, I'll take a few less in the cage and then try to get my groove on the field. But a lot of guys like to see the flight path of their ball ... to see if they're getting good backspin on the field and seeing where it goes, so it just depends on the player.
MiLB.com: After the A's traded you to the Cubs, how much of your second half was about adjusting to being on a new team in a new city with new coaches?
McKinney: I loved both coaching staffs I had this year, so it made it kind of easy for me. When I went to Daytona, [manager] Dave Keller and [hitting coach] Mariano Duncan made the transition easy for me and let me keep playing my game. I tried to stay within myself and play the best that I could, but I felt like it was pretty easy.
MiLB.com: You're already earning a reputation as someone with a plus bat. Is it your instincts, bat speed, mechanics or hand-eye coordination that help this tool play up so much?
McKinney: When it comes to my swing, all of those are very important -- hand-eye coordination, bat speed, mechanics. But it's more just a lot of repetition over the years, just trying to staying consistent. I've worked on that all my life. Learning something new about my swing every day is important. My approach depends on the day. I try to learn as much as I can about the pitchers, see if they have any tendencies. But I try to stay with my own swing and hit it where I'm looking for it, depending on the count.
MiLB.com: How would you rate the rest of your tools?
McKinney: Personally, I'm pleased with the rest of my tools, but I still try to get better at them every day. I trust my ability in the outfield -- that's really important to me. I'm pretty pleased with my running, but maybe I can steal some more bags this year -- we'll see how it goes. I want to get faster and that will help me play better defense and catch more balls in the outfield.
MiLB.com: Do you find that raw speed or good instincts are the most important thing to tracking down balls in the outfield?
McKinney: What I've always tried to work on my whole life is trying to read the ball as quick as I can because it can add two or three more steps, depending on how you read it. If you get a good read on a ball, that can change the game from a three-RBI double to an out and the end of the inning, so it's important to get good reads for me and I try to do my best to get the best jumps I can.
MiLB.com: You and Addison Russell were the A's top two prospects when the Cubs traded for you. How did it feel to be valued so highly by the Cubs after just a year in pro ball?
McKinney: It was an honor for me. I was really excited and I've loved everything about the organization so far. I'm just trying to do my best to be the best player I can be and help the big league team if and when that time comes.
MiLB.com: You're now in an organization stacked with young talent in the Minors. Does that make it harder to move through the system or does the competition help you improve?
McKinney: It's awesome, it's an honor to learn from all these guys. When Addison and I got traded, we became a lot closer, so I talked to him and learned from him. I talked to Albert [Almora] when I was in Daytona with him and also Daniel Vogelbach and all those guys, so it's definitely awesome being able to learn from them. Everybody on the team is very smart and they all know what they're doing with their plans and approaches, so I like to pick their brains all the time.
• More from McKinney on the blog »
MiLB.com: How exciting is it for you to be a key part of this young Cubs group coming through the system?
McKinney: It's awesome how people talk about us and the organization, both the big leagues and the Minor Leagues. The fans are awesome and they're great to us, and that makes it fun and exciting because our goal is to win a World Series for the Cubs.
MiLB.com: It's been 18 months since you got drafted, and soon you'll be starting your second full season in the Minors. Is it everything you expected it to be?
McKinney: You know, I'd say it's actually a little better. There are days when it's tough and it's a grind, but I think it's better than what I expected. Before I got drafted I tried to imagine the toughest it could be so that I could be ready for it and excel through it. I expected the worst, going through the slumps and the bad times and having a long bus ride when I'm not hitting well, but I've stayed positive and done my best.