In any given draft for any team, the first round pick is going to get most of the attention. For the Orioles in the 2015 draft, there were two first round picks to get attention: DJ Stewart and Ryan Mountcastle. That’s who hopes are pinned on. Later picks can develop more anonymously, as has been the case with outfielder Ryan McKenna, plucked from the New Hampshire high school ranks in the fourth round of that year’s draft.
With the very early season injury to former outfield prospect Austin Hays, an opportunity opened up at the MLB level for an outfielder who can, at a minimum, back up center field or play as a late-inning defensive replacement or pinch runner. The Orioles of 2021 recalled McKenna to fill that role.
By making it to MLB at all, McKenna has already beaten the odds for a fourth round pick. Of the 30 players drafted in the same year and round as him, only five have appeared in an MLB game. No draft’s fourth round from 2006-2015 had more than twelve players make it to MLB. McKenna is one of the remarkable ones even with what he has already done.
For the ongoing Orioles rebuilding project, this is something of an irrelevant fact. Feel-good debut stories that fizzle out two weeks later do not add to the win column. It’s nice that their fourth round pick six years ago was one of five to not be a bust. They are still going to need to find players who are better than players on a lot of other teams. Prospects don’t all have to have the pedigree of Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, or DL Hall to make a difference.
Whether McKenna can turn his early season debut into a role on the next good Orioles team is a question that will probably be answered one way or another during the 2021 season. If not for the pandemic canceling the 2020 minor league season, this question may have been answered last year. There are many other similar stories for O’s prospects and across the league. They didn’t have an opportunity to prove themselves and teams didn’t have an opportunity to judge their talent against higher-level competition.
McKenna has his believers in the world of prospect writers. At Fangraphs, he came in before the 2021 season at the #7 prospect in the system, trailing only who you might call the usual suspects: Rutschman, Rodriguez, Hall, Mountcastle, Heston Kjerstad, and Gunnar Henderson.
That’s a bit of an outlier opinion for McKenna’s ranking, so this may be an optimistic scouting report:
McKenna can fly and he has all-fields, doubles power, peppering the right-center gap with inside-out swings. Some of the power production is speed-driven, but McKenna has enough strength to deal with big league velo. His walk rates may come down as pitchers attack him in parts of the zone where they don’t think he can hurt them (mostly on the outer half), but he has a shot to be a league average hitter who also plays a good center field. That’s an everyday player, just probably one without the pop to be a 50 or better on the scale.
One bit of good news is that even if this turns out to be optimistic on McKenna as an every day player, with speed and outfield defense to offer, he’ll still have some value on a big league roster.
Where McKenna ends up landing on the O’s in the near future might have as much to do with the development of other outfield prospects as it does McKenna himself. If Anthony Santander is the right fielder of the near future, that’s one spot closed down. If he gets traded, the spot is open.
If Yusniel Díaz turns into the star that Dan Duquette wanted to believe he was when Díaz was acquired in the Manny Machado trade, he’ll be a regular ahead of McKenna. If not, that’s an open spot as well. And then there’s recent prospects Hays, Stewart, and Cedric Mullins currently at the MLB level as well. That’s a crowded picture to sort out.
Not every publication is as aggressive about McKenna as Fangraphs. In the other three Orioles lists I used to come up with the composite prospect ranking for this series, McKenna ranked 19th, 23rd, and 16th. These averaged him out to 16th place in the system. Those are rankings that are more in line with a player who is likely headed for a fourth outfielder role at best, rather than a potential regular.
McKenna has certainly not performed like a no-doubt regular on his way up the minor league ladder. That’s not surprising for a player with his specific profile, as high school picks from northern states that don’t have as much good baseball weather year-round tend to be slower to develop. They took it slow with him, only assigning him to then-short-season Aberdeen the year after he was drafted in 2016. There, McKenna batted .241/.320/.309 over 62 games. That’s a nice walk rate. The rest was a work in progress.
The 2018 season is what brought McKenna more onto the radar with something of a breakout. He started the season at then-High-A Frederick and batted .377/.467/.556 over his first 67 games. That’s pretty good for a 21-year-old player hitting that level for the first time. It was enough to get him bumped to Double-A Bowie, where the rest of the season was a bit rockier, as McKenna posted just a .679 OPS over his 60 game stint there.
McKenna had a strong Arizona Fall League campaign in 2018, but he was not able to carry over that into smashing success repeating at Bowie to open the 2019 season. He spent the full season there and batted .232/.321/.365 over 135 games. Again, beyond the walk rate, it’s not performance that leaps out at you.
Still, it was enough for Mike Elias to choose to add McKenna to the 40-man roster when he became eligible for the Rule 5 draft after the 2019 season. The fact that Elias did not spend the offseason after 2020 adding a bunch of non-roster veteran outfielders to be just in case depth suggests he’s at least confident enough in McKenna to be ready for that much, even without any playing time at Triple-A.
Sure enough, when Hays hurt his hamstring during the first series of the year, McKenna turned into that just in case depth. He has appeared in six games since his call-up, totaling nine plate appearances across those games. That was enough for him to join Matt Wieters in the “first major league hit is a triple” club, though it’s not much chance to have made more of an impression than that.
It would be a surprise to me if McKenna’s big league tenure goes beyond when Hays is healthy - but if he impresses at the alternate site and/or Norfolk, he’ll be back eventually. Having too many outfielders worthy of playing time than there are spots in an outfield would be a fine problem for the Orioles of later in 2021 and 2022 to deal with. Whether McKenna ends up being one of those outfielders is up to him now.