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Ryan McKenna’s season started with an infamous flub and ended off the playoff roster

By the end of the season, McKenna’s spot as the Orioles fourth outfielder had been displaced

MLB: SEP 05 Orioles at Angels
Ryan McKenna before an Angels game in September.
Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Over the next several weeks, members of the Camden Chat staff will be reviewing one 2023 Orioles player each day to see how the season went for each of them.

Even now, six months later, it is hard to just ignore the dropped pop-up by Ryan McKenna that would have ended the second Orioles game of the season in a victory. It was just about the simplest and most routine of plays and as we know, when the time came, McKenna stuck his glove out to the side, the ball thunked off the heel of the glove, and the next batter hit a walkoff home run.

The best thing that can be said about that play is that in the long run it didn’t matter. Although I spent most of the season assuming that one loss could loom large by season’s end, that wasn’t how September worked out. This did not turn out to be the difference between the Orioles making the playoffs or not, or between the Orioles winning the division and not. They won 101 games and would not have had any different spot in the standings if it had been 102.

Generous judges might even say that McKenna’s mistake that led to the walkoff loss was evened out by his delivery of an extra-innings walkoff home run on June 24 against the Mariners. One walkoff win to balance out one walkoff loss. You can certainly say this about McKenna’s 2023 season: He was in the middle of some dramatic moments. You can also say this: When push came to shove, he was left off the playoff roster.

In between that season-starting disaster and that season-ending absence, McKenna appeared in more than half of all Orioles games this season while ending up in the starting lineup just 33 times. The sporadic playing time was not a surprise, given that McKenna’s role on the roster was always going to be the fourth outfielder who plays sparingly - maybe a periodic start or a slightly more often appearance as a defensive replacement.

McKenna finished the season with perfectly cromulent, if not at all exciting, batting for a guy serving in this role. His season batting line of .254/.316/.361 adds up to a .677 OPS, or 9% below league average hitting. Every single team remaining in the postseason had at least one outfielder with 200 PA or more who hit worse than this. Three of the four LCS teams had two such outfielders. This is actually the best batting of McKenna’s three MLB seasons to date. He stole five bases after having never previously stolen more than two in one season.

You might have thought that McKenna’s time to shine, or at least his time to be in the starting lineup more often, would have coincided with Cedric Mullins suffering a late May groin strain and missing nearly a month. That is not how things worked out. From the day Mullins was placed on the injured list until the day he came back, an absence of 20 games, McKenna started a total of three games.

The day that Mullins landed on the injured list for the first time was the day that Aaron Hicks was signed by the Orioles. Hicks was designated for assignment by the Yankees ten days before being picked up by the O’s and the 11-year MLB veteran supplanted McKenna in the pecking order almost immediately.

Had Hicks hit like he did in New York, he may not have lasted long and McKenna’s playing time might have been restored. Hicks improved with the change of scenery, and it seems that for Mike Elias, having a capable veteran fourth outfielder became more important than for the team to keep around the guy who’d just kind of been around for a while, who got his chance because he was the next guy in line to get a chance for the bad 2021 Orioles, and who’d been sort of okay when judged on a reserve outfielder curve.

The Orioles made their choice and McKenna appeared much less from the time Hicks arrived. He was optioned four different times from July 5 until season’s end. That’s a serious contrast to the 2022 season, in which McKenna was optioned only once, and recalled 12 days after being optioned.

It’s the times that McKenna was recalled that paint the clearest picture of how he was replaced. The two times Hicks was put on the injured list, July 25 and August 19, saw McKenna recalled the exact same day. McKenna did not turn out to be the temporary Mullins replacement, but he was the temporary Hicks replacement. Cruelly for McKenna, this up and down stuff left him off the roster for both clinching celebrations, and the Orioles did not choose to put him on the ALDS roster either. Life as a fringe big leaguer does not have the same glamor as for an every day player. I will assume they voted him a share of the playoff player pool.

Looking ahead to next year’s roster, it’s a challenge to find a place for McKenna. The 2023 season was his last minor league option year, so he is not able to be freely sent to the minors any more going forward. With the starting outfield of Austin Hays, Anthony Santander, and Mullins all presumptively returning, plus prospects Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad figuring to be in the picture, plus the newfound seeming preference for a veteran outfielder on the bench, where does he fit in?

On the Orioles, he probably doesn’t. Heading into his age 27 season, he’s neither young enough to be interesting nor with enough of a quality track record to justify hanging around on a team that will have expectations. On some tanking team that’s not flush with near-MLB outfield prospects, a year of Ryan McKenna at near the minimum salary might seem better than some other options. If the Orioles decide to waive McKenna, he might not make it past the 103-loss Rockies. Sorry to all the McKenna fans out there who hoped for better. We’ll always have that walkoff.

Will he be on the 2024 Orioles? Not what I expect, but Mike Elias always finds big and small ways to surprise me.

2023 player reviews: This is the first one

Tomorrow: Jacob Webb