It isn’t easy being a prospect. One day, you’re bursting onto the scene, and fans and media can’t wait to lavish you with praise. The next day, you’re falling back to earth, and suddenly you’re old news, overshadowed by the newest hot prospects to roll into town. And all this before you’ve even played a single game in the major leagues.
Such is life for 22-year-old outfielder Ryan McKenna.
A year ago at this time, McKenna had become the next big thing on the Orioles’ prospect stage. The 2015 fourth rounder, who’d posted middling-at-best offensive numbers in his first three minor league seasons, erupted for a .377 average and 1.023 OPS in 67 games for Single-A Frederick in 2018. Combine that with his excellent glovework in center field, and wowza, that’s a prospect! Sure, he didn’t hit well after a promotion to Double-A Bowie that year — batting .239 with only 13 extra base hits in 250 plate appearances — but those early-season numbers were eye-popping. He also raked in the Arizona Fall League, going 21-for-61 (.344) with a 1.064 OPS. Yes, Ryan McKenna was a player on the upswing.
And then...2019 happened.
To call this season a disappointment would be an understatement. McKenna, given a full year at Bowie to find his footing, instead continued to slip. While his slugging percentage improved slightly over last year’s mediocre stint in Double-A (from .338 to .365), his average remained unimpressive (.232) and his on-base percentage dropped 20 points to .321.
McKenna stole a career high 25 bases, but was also thrown out a career high 11 times, giving him a 69% success rate that may have done more harm than good.
What’s worse, McKenna’s season was plagued by mental errors and sloppy play, which continued even into Bowie’s postseason run.
In game two of Bowie’s division series against Harrisburg, McKenna committed two costly baserunning blunders. In one case, McKenna, at first base, lost track of the count on the next batter, thinking he’d drawn a walk when it was only ball three. He meandered off the bag and was easily picked off. Later, in extra innings, McKenna — representing the winning run at second with one out — got a terrible read on a liner to right field, taking off for third on a ball that was easily caught by the outfielder. He was doubled off to squash the rally. Bowie ultimately lost the game by one run.
Baysox manager Buck Britton, interviewed after the game, sounded like a man who was at his wits’ end with McKenna’s frequent mistakes.
“Really no excuse for either one of them,” Britton said. “You can’t lose focus in moments like that. Those are things that we preach from spring training. He’s heard the same things for years. At some point, you’ve got to retain information and be able to slow the games down, especially in big games like this.”
Getting called out by his manager for his repeated lack of focus isn’t exactly a feather in McKenna’s cap. And it casts, if not doubt, then at least concern about whether McKenna has a viable major league future ahead of him.
Still, flaws aside, McKenna’s speed and defense — and the wisps of potential with his bat — are enough at this point to keep him on the prospect radar screen. He ranks as the Orioles’ No. 13 prospect on MLB Pipeline and No. 10 on FanGraphs. The former says this: “McKenna gets out of the box exceptionally well for a right-handed hitter and routinely posts plus-or-better home-to-first run times. That speed also gives him the chance to stay in center field, and he has more than enough arm strength for the position.”
It should be noted that, at 22, McKenna was two years younger than the average Double-A position player this year. So he has some time to mature and, hopefully, cut down on the brain cramps.
The Orioles face an interesting decision with McKenna this offseason. With five years of minor league experience, McKenna must be added to the Orioles’ 40-man roster or else be exposed to the Rule 5 draft, where any team can select him.
Last winter, it would’ve been a slam dunk for McKenna to be protected. Now, though, the picture is murkier. His offensive dropoff in 2019, and the organization’s apparent frustration with his mental mistakes (if Britton speaks for the front office, at least), may have diminished his status. And they probably make it less likely for another team to pluck him in the Rule 5 and carry him on their roster all year, which is more reason for the O’s not to add him to the 40-man yet.
Still, it’s likelier than not that the O’s will choose to protect McKenna, given his upside. Some scouts believe he’s the best defensive center fielder in the Orioles’ system, a talent he flashes when he makes catches like this.
For an Orioles team that has spent much of the season sticking infielders in the outfield and hoping for the best, it’s helpful to have a quality defensive outfielder waiting in the wings. If nothing else, McKenna may have a future as a fourth or fifth outfielder, serving as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement late in games.
A bench player may be McKenna’s most realistic path, but it’s too soon to call that his ceiling. If he can ever rediscover the offensive magic that propelled him for those glorious two and a half months at Frederick, McKenna has a shot at everyday at-bats in the bigs.
The 2020 season will go a long way to determining McKenna’s future with the organization...assuming he’s still in the Orioles’ organization next year.