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Orioles prospect season in review: Ryan McKenna

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With a strong 2018 minor league season, center fielder Ryan McKenna solidified himself as a prospect to watch in the Orioles’ system.

Oakland Athletics v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Ryan McKenna was drafted by the Orioles out of St. Thomas Aquinas high school in Dover, New Hampshire in the fourth round (133rd overall pick) of the 2015 MLB Draft. He was only 18 years old at the time, making him a tad over 21 right now. The right-handed hitting, right-handed throwing outfielder checks in at 5 feet 11 inches, 185 pounds.

He is currently ranked as the Orioles’ 13th best prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, who also lists McKenna’s throwing, running and hitting ability as his top three tools. He’s spent the vast majority of his professional career patrolling center field, with a handful of appearances this past season in left.

He is the fourth highest ranked outfielder in MLB Pipeline’s top 30 Orioles prospect list, behind only Yusniel Diaz, Cedric Mullins (currently with the big league club) and Austin Hays.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s start at the beginning.

McKenna got a brief taste of professional baseball the same year he was drafted, in 2015, appearing in 10 games (34 at-bats) in the Gulf Coast League and hitting .265/.366/.324 with six walks and six strikeouts.

He spent 2016 with short season Single-A Aberdeen, batting .241/.320/.309 in 220 at-bats with one home run, 26 RBI and 17 steals. This was a significant year, because when given a healthy dose of at-bats, McKenna’s was able to show off his ability to steal bases. The following year would be more of the same.

With the Delmarva Shorebirds in 2017, McKenna stole 20 bases over 468 at-bats while hitting .256/.311/.380. He also saw an uptick in power and run production, hitting seven home runs to go along with 42 RBI. Don’t get me wrong, McKenna will probably never be known for the long ball, but a modest increase from year to year for a developing player is nothing to sneeze at.

That brings us to the 2018 season, when he hit .315/.410/.457 in 470 at-bats across two levels, vaulting himself into legitimate prospect territory. He clubbed 11 home runs, drove in 53 runs and stole nine bases. Yes, the steals were down a bit from the two prior years, but the power numbers experienced another slight uptick, along with big improvements to his triple slash line.

McKenna started the 2018 season with the Frederick Keys, where he hit .377/.467/.556 with eight home runs, 37 RBI and five steals in 67 games. While playing for the Keys, the 21-year-old continued to show an advanced batting eye, working 37 walks versus 45 strikeouts.

Midway through the year, McKenna was promoted to the Bowie Baysox, where he was unable to duplicate his early season success. He hit .239/.341/.338 with three home runs, 16 RBI, four steals, 29 walks and 56 strikeouts in 60 games — showing patience at the plate but not much else.

So despite a strong start to the year in Single-A, McKenna struggled when promoted to the upper levels of the minor league system. In this regard, it really was a tale of two halves for the young center fielder.

It’s too ambitious to project McKenna making the Major League roster out of spring training next year. There are too many strong outfield prospects in the minor leagues ahead of him. Plus, another full season in the minor leagues would be in his best interest, considering the fact that he struggled mightily with Double-A pitching after his midseason promotion.

Because McKenna profiles as a fast, high on-base center field option, his path to the majors is blocked somewhat by Cedric Mullins. With the way the Orioles have been limiting Mullins’ appearances versus lefties, a platoon in center between these two players isn’t outside the realm of possibility down the road. (For the record, I’m on the side of playing Mullins every day.)

It’s also possible that McKenna ends up being a fourth outfielder type, able to play all three outfield positions with speed and offer competitive at-bats when called upon. But if everything works out for him, his skills translate to the top of the batting order.

He will probably start the 2019 season with the Bowie Baysox, where he finished 2018. With a strong first half, he could see a promotion to the Triple-A level next year. Best case scenario for McKenna is probably a September 2019 call up with the O’s, but you never know. Stranger things have happened.