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“Marginal prospect,” the scout said, and while he had some kinder words about the way McKinney approaches the game, it’s hard to get past those first two words. First-round picks aren’t supposed to be marginal prospects. Minor leaguers who become part of big midseason deals are supposed to be better than that, significantly better.
It turns out maybe Billy McKinney is better than marginal, that maybe he’s just one of those players who needed a while to develop, one of those guys who will eventually get a chance and justify that first-round pick and those big trades.
“Wow,” the same scout said after seeing McKinney later last year. “It’s all coming together.”
Fast-forward to this spring, when McKinney homered four times in his first 16 Grapefruit League at-bats.
“He may be one of those sleeper guys,” an American League scout said this week.
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Prospects are talked about more than ever before. Prospect rankings and projections are everywhere, and everyone wants to look at a guy in Class A and tell you how good he is going to be in the big leagues.
But the fact is, there are “sleeper guys.” Talent doesn’t develop along a straight line. Players do go from “marginal prospect” to “wow.”
Especially players who were talented enough to be drafted eight spots ahead of Aaron Judge. Judge was the 32nd player picked in June 2013, out of Fresno State. McKinney went 24th, to the Oakland A’s, out of Plano West HS in Texas.
“There are few, if any, high school bats better than McKinney’s,” MLB.com wrote that spring.
McKinney was 18 years old then. He’s 23 now, with a very good half-season in Triple-A (.877 OPS in 55 games at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre) and a pretty good month in the Arizona Fall League (.800 OPS in 19 games with Scottsdale) behind him.
“Big league ready,” said two scouts who have seen him.
“It’s just quality at-bat after quality at-bat,” new Yankees manager Aaron Boone said, according to Randy Miller of NJ.com. “He’s really impressed me all the way around.”
McKinney could become a key player to watch for the Yankees in 2018. But will he even get a chance?
The Yankees have Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner, Clint Frazier and Jacoby Ellsbury in front of him, and there’s top prospect Estevan Florial behind him. Ellsbury and Frazier have been hurt this spring, possibly opening up a spot, but the Yankees are loaded with outfielders, one reason they had McKinney play a little first base last fall and again this spring. With fragile Greg Bird the projected starter at first, maybe an opportunity will open up there.
“They’ve got too many high-end guys,” the AL scout said. “He could be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Go to Triple-A, put up big numbers and make the Yankees decide if they want to trade you to someone else.”
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It wouldn’t be the first time McKinney got traded. Or the second time.
The A’s spent $1.8 million to sign him out of the draft, but before he’d even gotten out of Class A, they shipped him and Addison Russell to the Chicago Cubs as part of the package to get Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in 2014. Two years later, the Cubs sent him to the Yankees as part of the Aroldis Chapman deal.
McKinney wasn’t the big name going to the Yankees in that trade. He was the second prospect, with all the focus on Gleyber Torres. The 21-year-old Torres is still the big name, ranked by MLB.com as the No. 5 prospect in all of the minor leagues.
He’s never been considered just marginal. Billy McKinney has. But like Torres, McKinney is a guy who can still make scouts say, “Wow!”
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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