There weren’t a lot of pitches thrown Billy McKinney’s way his senior year at Plano West High School. Scouts packed the bleachers and the student section was always at full capacity in one of Dallas-Fort Worth’s biggest suburbs. This young man needed to be seen.
This two true outcome hitter was either launching prospective pitches over the right field fence, or taking four wide ones and a free 90 feet to his right.
Despite an elite crop of north Texas pitchers —an area that has produced Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw and World Series champion Jake Arrieta— McKinney was habitually pitched around.
But that didn’t stop him from being selected 24th overall by the Oakland A’s in the 2013 MLB Draft. Since then, McKinney has had an eventful pro career for reasons out of his control.
In 2014, he and teammate/best friend/roommate Addison Russell were fatefully traded to the Chicago Cubs for pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. His stock wasn’t where 2012 11th overall pick Russell’s was, but this was an undeniably massive haul the Cubs got.
Immediately slotting into the top of the Cubs minor league system, the sweet-swinging lefty was on the verge of a promotion to Triple-A in 2015 before a hairline fracture began a run of debilitating injuries. His stock has dropped since due to his trips to the disabled list, but with tools as prevalent and promising as his, he was once again used to facilitate a baseball blockbuster.
Dealt once again with a top shortstop prospect (this time 2013 international signee Gleyber Torres), the Cubs acquired closer Aroldis Chapman from the New York Yankees for his services.
Looking for a breakthrough, it came prior to Spring Training 2017. Injuries to post-hype prospects Mason Williams and Tyler Austin bumped McKinney’s Spring Training residency from minor to major league camp. His strong performance there (he went 10-for-25 with three homers) put the shine back on his prospect status.
He enters 2017 with an abundance of unique on-and-off field experience, poised to breakthrough to Triple-A, still just 22 years old until late August. Drawing praise in camp from Yankees Manager Joe Girardi, he may not be far off from wearing the iconic pinstripes.
You made the MLB Spring Training Roster, how much did it mean to you to get this chance?
It was a true honor to have the opportunity to play with the Yankees major league team during Spring Training. I tried to learn things from all of the players and observe their routine in preparing themselves for the season.
And then you made the most of it...to say the least. Talk about how you took advantage of that opportunity?
My approach in Spring Training is the same one I have during the season which is to make solid contact with the ball. As mentioned earlier it was great getting to know all of the MLB players in Spring Training. They were great teammates and very supportive of all of us.
After being traded in two blockbusters, you sort of have a clean slate going forward with the Yankees. Do you think that's the case?
I think there are pluses and issues associated with any trade. From a plus side you get to see the different cultures and leadership strengths of all three organizations. The only concern would be having to say goodbye to all the friends made with the previous club and the shock of having to pick up and move within 24 hours. I can say all three clubs (A's, Cubs and Yankees) made both transitions very smooth and easy.
Regarding a clean slate, not sure that is applicable in our results based culture. Expectation here is you are always expected to deliver. You get a clean slate every night and on the next day you start again and are expected to deliver regardless of how well you did the night before.
What is it like to be not only traded twice but to be in two deals that affected the baseball landscape in a big way?
It was an honor to be traded to two premier clubs although the trades themselves were out of my control. I have become good friends with all of the players I was traded with as I keep up with Addison Russell, room with Rashad Crawford and (am) good friends with Gleyber Torres.
With health issues behind you, what did you focus on working on this off-season?
It all starts with being in shape and focusing on the fundamentals. From hitting to running and throwing, it is important to make sure you are in the best shape you can be. Doing this limits downtime to heal if an injury occurs.
Still just 22, how has all the experience you've had helped you become a professional?
Every chance to learn from others is a great opportunity to develop and areas for growth. I have thoroughly enjoyed interacting with all of the coaches and players within all of the clubs. Great experiences and great memories.
Your former roommates Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber helped break the curse last year. Did watching the Cubs in the postseason motivate you?
I was thrilled to see Addison, Kyle and the rest of the Cubs win the World Series for Chicago. With that said I am a Yankee now and want to be apart of the Yankees team that wins the World Series for New York City. I am very proud to be a part of the Yankees and their winning culture.