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Orioles prospect season in review: Ryan McKenna

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The outfielder just wrapped up a rookie season full of sterling defense and a whole lot of strikeouts.

Miami Marlins v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

It’s possible that no other Oriole was bounced between Norfolk and Baltimore more often this season than Ryan McKenna. The outfielder was the first player that the team called up from the alternate site back in April, and he went on to be optioned and recalled nine times in total throughout the summer.

Just a glance at his stat line makes it obvious why McKenna was given the yo-yo treatment all year long.

In the 27 games he spent at Triple-A, the versatile outfielder was a monster at the plate, slugging .683 with 11 home runs in just 123 plate appearances. It seemed like there was little else he could learn at the level.

But that success wouldn’t translate to the big leagues, where he slumped to a .266 slugging percentage and 59 wRC+ to go along with a 37.6% strikeout rate across 197 plate appearances. For a team that often needed to score in bunches to support a struggling pitching staff, that wasn’t going be good enough to stay in Brandon Hyde’s lineup on a daily basis. Of course, that’s not to say that McKenna’s rookie season was without its bright spots.

His defense was a particularly valuable tool off the bench. Despite playing fewer than 500 innings, McKenna was worth four outs above average, the second-best mark on the team behind Cedric Mullins, who is probably going to be under consideration for a Gold Glove this season.

Some of that success with the glove came as a result of McKenna’s blazing speed. He is one of the fastest players in Major League Baseball. His top sprint speed of 29.3 feet per second was the 25th-fastest time in the sport this season, third on the O’s behind Jorge Mateo (30.4) and Richie Martin (29.4). The guy can fly. That only translated to one stolen base, but it’s a weapon regardless of bags swiped.

Fans of McKenna’s have often argued on social media that he needs more regular at bats with the Orioles if he’s ever going to be impactful at the plate. But those were tough to come by when Mullins, Austin Hays, and Anthony Santander were all healthy at the same time (rare as it was). And even when there was an opening in the starting lineup, Hyde often opted for D.J. Stewart and his offensive upside instead.

Of the 90 games in which McKenna played this season, he was a starter in only 49 of them. But once Stewart was placed on the IL in September, and Santander was continually plagued by injuries, McKenna did receive fairly regular playing time. He started 18 games in September/October, the most of any month, but he still slashed just .164/.261/.262, arguably his worst stretch of the year.

The outfield picture may not get any less crowded by the time spring training rolls around. There is a possibility that Santander and Stewart are both on the trading block over the winter. But other players will be on the way.

Kyle Stowers had a monster season across three levels, sharing the organization’s Player of the Year award with Adley Rutschman. And then there’s Robert Neustrom, who was steady at Triple-A and needs to be protected from the Rule 5 draft. And that’s before you even consider that Yusniel Diaz is still kicking around the minors.

It’s far too soon to draw any reasonable conclusions about McKenna. He did not do enough to be handed a big league role in 2022, just as he didn’t appear totally incapable of playing at the level either. He will head to Sarasota in February fighting for his spot on the roster and, depending on the moves made by the front office, possibly an everyday role.

It’s easy to say that McKenna needs to do a better job of making consistent contact and cutting down on strikeouts. It’s much harder to actually do that against the best pitchers in the world. But it is a necessity if McKenna is to have a lengthy career in the majors. As fantastic as his glove and speed are, they cannot overcome a 54 OPS+.

All things considered, it was perhaps a slightly disappointing debut campaign for McKenna, but there is almost nowhere for his bat to go but up, and there is little reason to think the tools that did flash will regress at all between now and next season. At the very least, he looks like an almost ideal fourth outfielder, and that has value on a team that will want to ensure they can keep their starters healthy all season long.