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New York Yankees: Where does Billy McKinney fit in?

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Billy McKinney has been searching for his role since he was drafted in 2013. Is he finally finding one with the Yankees?

MLB: Spring Training-Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Billy McKinney conundrum continues for the New York Yankees.

I’ve written plenty about McKinney, coining him “the other guy” because of some of the big trades he’s been involved in throughout his career. That’s who McKinney has seemingly become, a former first-rounder who has never relented but gets lost in the shuffle.

This spring McKinney is making sure people take notice.

Vitals

McKinney is now 23 years old. The left-handed hitter is listed at 6-1, 205 which seems accurate in person. He was the Oakland A’s first-rounder in the 2013 MLB Draft and sent to the Chicago Cubs with Addison Russell for some big-league arms a year later. Two years ago, McKinney came to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman with Gleyber Torres, where he has resided for the past season and a half. Note how he can be seen as “the other guy” in his trades.

Thoughts

McKinney had a tough go in 2016 split between the Cubs and Yankees Double-A teams. Those struggles continued to start 2017, but statistically speaking at least, he shined in his Triple-A debut. McKinney slashed .306/.336/.541 in 55 games. Normally a solid approach at the plate, McKinney posted an uncharacteristic 49-to-9 strikeout-to-walk over the same span.

As he struggled with the advanced pitching, primarily recognizing breaking stuff, he was able to tap into his power. McKinney hit 10 homers with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre alone, nearly topping his single-season career high of 11 in just 55 games. Though the power was almost all pull, he showed an ability to find all the gaps when the ball stayed in the park.

Here’s my scouting profile from last August with the RailRiders. It describes McKinney’s approach as:

McKinney has an interesting approach at the plate. He almost winds up into his stands, getting down low before posting up back in the box. He stands a little wide and it appears he has his weight on that back foot. McKinney bounces a little bit pre-pitch, knees bent inward, bat held straight up, hands just below his head. He gets the bat through the strike zone quickly, using more of a slide than a step to approach the ball.

McKinney actually seemed somewhat aggressive for someone with his plate discipline. Batting fifth, he attacked a 1-1 pitch in his first at-bat, driving it to deep right field. McKinney did work a count in his second at-bat, flying out to deep left on a 3-2 count. He then drove his third pitch of his third at-bat to center field. He struck out on four pitches in his final at-bat, chasing two low pitches.

His bat has been erratic throughout his career but seems to be able to play in the bigs. His defense is the question mark. He began his career as a centerfielder and shifted to left pretty quickly. With the power developing, and limited range, he could easily be a fit in the corners. The Yankees began working McKinney at first base in the AFL. He seems to be picking it up well, and that versatility will play big if he is to get a role with the Yankees.

McKinney’s aggressiveness continues to see a surge in his power. He had a nice stint in the desert, earning him Fall Stars honors in the Arizona Fall League. This spring, he has been powering up yet again. He’s only hitting .263, but a .481 on-base percentage and .895 slugging percentage speaks more. He is mashing home runs, four already, and that plate awareness seems to be back to McKinney form. He’s walked seven times, only striking out six.

2018 projection

The Yankees weren’t going to lose McKinney to the Rule 5 Draft, so he was added to the 40-man roster. He’s making as strong a case as he can this spring to crack the Opening Day roster. The Yankees system is deep, and that still seems like a hard battle for McKinney to win.

As previously mentioned, McKinney has been up and down throughout his career. An impressive showing in Triple-A, the AFL and now his second Yankees spring training seems to be the start of a positive trend. It still is likely not enough for the Yankees to be convinced, and will want to see him replicate his strong finish in Triple-A again, at least to start. John Sickels, in ranking him the Yankees No. 13 prospect, had this to say, which I think speaks volumes of the mystery that is Billy McKinney:

...in a certain sense nothing has changed, still combines average overall tools with hustle and good game feel; in another sense I really don’t know what to make of him at this point; hits extremely well at times but prone to stretches of mediocre performance; at this point I’m not sure who the real McKinney is; will just slap a B- on there and call it good for now. ETA 2018.

That being said, of all the Yankees organizational depth, McKinney is one of the most Major League-ready. Adding first base to his repertoire will certainly help, but the Yankees may feel going with Tyler Austin, who has a similar role, to open the season is a safer bet. When Austin gets hurt, because he WILL get hurt, McKinney should get the first call.