The Orioles do not look out of place when matched up against teams like Atlanta and Tampa Bay. Baltimore belongs on the field with the best of the best, and the club intends to keep it that way.
The Orioles have blossomed into a team capable of winning in multiple forms. Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde have more talent than ever to play the matchup game, and Baltimore clearly values versatility. Players like Terrin Vavra, Adam Frazier and Ramón Urías will play a large factor in whether the Birds reach their goals this season.
Ryan McKenna does not play the infield like the aforementioned trio, but he can play all three outfield spots. The 26-year-old’s speed, defense, and ability to hit lefties add up to produce a quality major leaguer.
McKenna made his debut in April 2021 but has only 364 at bats under his belt. The former fourth-round pick never ranked as a Top-10 prospect in the system. He arrived in Baltimore during the heart of the rebuild but did not receive the same opportunities as guys like Urías or Jorge Mateo.
The Orioles kicked off their rebuild with only one piece of the puzzle already in place—the outfield. Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and Anthony Santander all debuted by the end of 2018, and the trio eventually cemented itself as the outfield of the present and the future.
Cedric Mullins locked up centerfield with an All-Star campaign in 2021. Hays and Santander battled some injuries, but the pair showed they belonged in the lineup when healthy. The Orioles were not exactly holding open auditions despite a 52-110 record in 2021.
McKenna immediately profiled as an extra outfielder with his speed and ability to play center field. Unfortunately, that projection was often paired with a low ceiling.
McKenna ranked below Yusniel Díaz and Austin Hays back in 2020. Vavra jumped McKenna in the prospect rankings the following season, and Kyle Stowers catapulted ahead after being named co-minor-league player of the year for the Orioles in 2021. Colton Cowser currently projects as a future All Star, and Heston Kjerstad has people dreaming of a debut by the end of 2023.
Meanwhile, McKenna continues to show up and do his part. He holds a .308 average and 124 OPS+ in 43 plate appearances. He overcame a brutal error at the beginning of the year and returned to form as a plus defender. He has slashed .345/.375/.517 against lefties and remains a fixture late in games.
McKenna has held steady with the club while Stowers and Vavra have both spent time with Norfolk. The righty represented an easy pick as a roster casualty early in the season, but his performance has forced Elias to keep him with the Orioles.
Cowser will definitely arrive at some point this season. McKenna forced his way into a platoon when Mullins struggled against lefties last year, and Camden Chat’s John Beers speculated that the same situation could eventually arise with Cowser.
Mullins has bounced back with a 296/.404/.546 line in 54 plate appearances against lefties this year. Even if Mullins stays hot against southpaws, McKenna requires a spot in LHP lineup. Baltimore has utilized James McCann as the designated hitter against lefties this year, but Hyde could slot Santander as the DH more often with both Mullins and McKenna playing the field against lefties.
McKenna has already exceeded some expectations, but could he develop into an everyday player? The Oregon native holds a career .211/.297/.284 slashline against right-handed pitching. McKenna has hit just 2-for-10 with four strikeouts against righties this season.
The Orioles appear more focused on matchups than ever before. It’s difficult to imagine Hyde writing McKenna’s name into the lineup against righties unless an injury occurs. Even then, Baltimore could turn to Cowser or Vavra.
McKenna batted just .197 over 90 games in 2021 and hit .237 last season. This year, he appears to have mastered the ability to provide everyday-player caliber numbers in a part-time role. He’s recorded at least one hit in six of his last seven games with more than one plate appearance.
Players like McKenna are a manager’s best friend. While the Orioles option Stowers and Vavra for everyday at bats, they can continue to rely on McKenna to deliver when necessary. Late-inning replacements are always in style during a playoff push.