An injury to Freddy Galvis placed the Orioles in need of an infielder that could play shortstop. The recent return of Austin Hays, an outfielder capable of playing center field, reduced the need for depth in the grass.
The sequence proved to be a lethal combination for Ryan McKenna.
Baltimore optioned McKenna after a win over the Yankees Monday night. The Orioles recalled veteran utilityman Pat Valaika prior to last night’s contest against New York. The Birds had optioned Valaika after he managed just one hit in four games early on.
The Orioles know what they have in Valaika. He does not factor into the club’s long term future, but there is a chance he could stick around for a while. Galvis may avoid a trip to the injured list, but Rio Ruiz and Ramón Urías have not hit well enough to simplify matters. Then again, Valaika could return to the alternate site before this piece runs today.
McKenna, on the other hand, represented a bit of an unknown prior to his call-up. Sure, the organization has seen plenty of the righty since he was drafted in 2015, but the former fourth rounder did not exactly wallop his way to the bigs.
McKenna hit just .232/.321/.365 at Double-A Bowie for the duration of 2019. Due to the lost year in 2020, one must return all the way back to the 2018 Arizona Fall League to recall a time McKenna posted quality numbers. McKenna’s .344/.474/.590 slash line over 17 games at Glendale generated significant buzz, but we’re a long way from 2018.
McKenna made his major league debut after Austin Hays strained his right hamstring in a game against Boston. Baltimore briefly optioned McKenna last week, but immediately recalled him once Anthony Santander became the latest Bird to suffer an injury. The two moves essentially resulted in a three week stint in Baltimore for McKenna.
MLB.com ranks McKenna as the Orioles’ 15th best prospect, but expectations appeared reasonable for his first shot at the show. McKenna failed to pick up a hit in his first three appearances, but broke through with a triple against the Red Sox to notch his first big league hit. He added another knock that game and scored a pair of runs.
McKenna managed just one more hit the rest of the way, but showed some ability to get on base. He returned to Bowie after going 3-for-14 but did walk twice. Two of McKenna’s three hits came in a blowout loss to Boston, but he found other ways to contribute. O’s’ skipper Brandon Hyde turned to McKenna as a defensive replacement several times.
Hyde’s willingness to send McKenna out there late into games represents the largest takeaway of his stretch with the Birds. McKenna split 47.2 innings between right and left field. There was never a need for center with Cedric Mullins playing up the middle.
Hyde’s trust in McKenna’s defense should help the 24-year-old in the near future. McKenna fits the profile as a fourth outfielder— he can play multiple positions and replace Ryan Mountcastle or DJ Stewart late in games.
McKenna showed off his speed with his first MLB hit. He did not steal a bag this year, but the potential is there. The Oregon native swiped 25 bags with Bowie in 2019.
The determining factor for McKenna will come at the plate. He has consistently demonstrated the ability to work a walk throughout his minor league career, but he swings and misses too. He walked 59 times, but struck out in 121 of his 567 plate appearances at Bowie.
McKenna appeared outmatched early on, but demonstrated progress over the stretch. The best example came in Baltimore’s 6-1 victory over the Athletics last Sunday. McKenna stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. The Orioles led by three, but the team needed all the insurance runs it could get against a team as hot as Oakland.
McKenna fell behind in the count 1-2 before laying off a changeup. He fouled off four pitches before working an RBI base on balls. These are the type of plays that represent progress for a prospect. McKenna will likely be given an opportunity to establish his bat at Norfolk once the minor league season begins, but it’s encouraging to see that type of poise early on.
McKenna’s future with the club remains a mystery, but it is encouraging to know that he can already help the club in a pinch. He must show consistency with the bat just to stick as a fourth outfielder long term, but the tools are there.