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Ryan McKenna faces stiff competition for a roster spot

Back when the team had little depth, he was a great option, but now?

Detroit Tigers v Baltimore Orioles
Ryan McKenna in a late-innings relief role: NOT the way to maximize the speedster’s talents.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Almost three months ago, I ended up writing a “Ryan McKenna doesn’t get no stinkin’ respect” piece. The super sub got kudos for “the spirit and energy he brings to the dugout when he is not playing,” but not a whole lot more. This was unfair, I felt. Even without tons of playing time, McKenna was still delivering a lot of value as a reserve glove who could provide some value with the bat, putting him in solid company of fourth outfielders like Boston’s Jarren Duran, Toronto’s Raimel Tapia and Tampa Bay’s Josh Lowe.

Well, what do you know, the Baltimore Orioles front office doesn’t care what I think. After July 29, McKenna made 36 appearances (134 innings), and two of those were as a relief pitcher. Was this a vote of no confidence by the team, or McKenna simply getting squeezed by the new prospects?

It’s tricky. Back when DJ Stewart was McKenna’s biggest competition in the outfield and Trey Mancini was still getting starts in right, the 25-year-old speedster had a clear path to playing time. Now McKenna’s outfield competition is Kyle Stowers and Terrin Vavra. Shows how much better this team has gotten in the meantime.

One way in which 2022 was a solid year for McKenna: the Norfolk shuttle. Last season, the former 4th round draft pick in 2015 went back and forth between Triple-A and the Orioles six times. This season he rode the shuttle once, and after May 14, not at all. It’s clear that McKenna was a trusted glove for Brandon Hyde, who relied on him in high-leverage spots. Of his 100 or so appearances on the season, 60-plus were as late-innings defensive replacements. That included moments like this against the Yankees on July 23, which MASN’s Kevin Brown called “the defensive replacement of the season.”

And he could play anywhere, getting almost equal playing time in LF, CF and RF, and earning a plus grade at each. Over 422 innings as an OF, McKenna made just two errors and his range and arm factor grade out positively.

The question was: can he hit?

The question remains unanswered. In the second half, McKenna’s offensive output dropped off, the average sinking 40 points to .215 and the OPS 60 points to .595. His OPS+, 88 through most of July, dropped to 80 by the end of the year. McKenna’s WAR in late July was 0.8, but by the end of the season, it was 0.2.

Given that McKenna’s glove remained steady throughout, the inference to be made is that McKenna’s bat went from average-to-below-average in the first half to solidly below average by the second. For what it’s worth, this was in about 30% fewer plate appearances. But while it’s true that regular playing time might help McKenna’s offensive numbers, then again, a .200 average against fastballs isn’t a huge selling point. Plus a career minors slashline of .266/.354/.406 suggests a limited ceiling.

The trouble is, it just gets harder from here. The Orioles activated Terrin Vavra in July and Kyle Stowers in August. There are other outfielders on the 40-man right now, namely Yusniel Díaz and Jake Cave, not to mention Colton Cowser, Shayne Fontana, Robert Neustrom and Johnny Rizer waiting in the wings at Triple-A Norfolk.

I don’t think this team will cut ties with Ryan McKenna in the offseason. He’s too reliable as an insurance glove. But come spring training, the fourth outfielder spot will be in high demand.

Previous 2022 Orioles player reviews: Bruce Zimmermann, Robinson Chirinos, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Nick Vespi/Logan Gillaspie, Spenser Watkins, Rougned Odor

Tomorrow: Kyle Bradish