Blue Jays: Uphill battle for Billy McKinney to make the team
With a large field of candidates who could see playing time in a corner outfield spot, the odds could be stacked against Billy McKinney to make the Blue Jays’ roster out of Spring Training.
There was a time earlier this offseason that I thought the Blue Jays might actually consider adding another outfielder to their depth chart through free agency, but now that we’re getting a better look at the front office’s plans, it makes sense that they held back.
The Jays will return an outfield that will likely feature Kevin Pillar in centre, Randal Grichuk in right, and a whole host of options in left field. They could include Teoscar Hernandez, who hit 22 home runs last year, Dalton Pompey, who is out of minor league options, or also infielders like Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Devon Travis, both of whom have been mentioned recently as left field options.
If you had asked Blue Jays fans back in September who would be starting in left field in 2019, many of them would have answered with Billy McKinney, the pleasant surprise who arrived in a trade with the Yankees in July of 2018. McKinney was seen as the “extra” piece of the a deal that also brought Brandon Drury to the Blue Jays, and sent J.A. Happ to join the Yankees in a pennant race. However, he was quietly impressive in his 36 games with the Blue Jays and slashed .252/.318/.462 in 115 at bats.
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It’s a small sample size to be sure, but it was enough that he put himself on the radar for the 2019 season. That said, while he may have earned an opportunity in the big leagues this year, he might have to wait before the chance to play in Toronto comes around.
To be clear, I fully expect that he’ll be competing for a job this spring, and that he’ll have a legitimate chance to earn one. However, there are a lot of variables working against him right now, especially as the Blue Jays attempt to sort out a 25 and 40 man roster. However, here’s a summary of what he’s up against.
He has minor league options remaining
Perhaps the biggest hurdle is that McKinney could be retained by the Blue Jays even if they choose to start his season in Triple-A Buffalo. That’s not the same case for someone like Dalton Pompey, who is out of minor league options and remains on the 40 man roster as of this writing.
If the Blue Jays want to give Pompey one more shot in the big leagues before they trade him or cut him loose, it’s definitely going to be a dent in McKinney’s chances of making the team, or of getting much playing time.
A plethora of left field options
As I mentioned above, left field could see a lot of difference faces this year as the Blue Jays attempt to rotate their players into the lineup. That will include the likes of the aforementioned Hernandez, Gurriel Jr., Travis, and also Pompey if he makes the team. There’s also guys like Anthony Alford, Jonathan Davis, and Dwight Smith Jr. who could push for an opportunity in Dunedin.
I imagine that Brandon Drury will be used almost exclusively in the infield in the first few weeks of the season, but once Vladimir Guerrero Jr. arrives that could be a different story. He’s also played in the outfield in the big leagues before, and could be a candidate to receive a few starts in left.
Lack of an obvious platoon partner
While more and more teams are utilizing a platoon strategy across the big leagues, the Blue Jays really aren’t set up for that in the outfield next year. Sure, pretty much all of the other outfield options are right-handed hitters, but none of them are drastically poor against same-sided pitching, at least not bad enough to be used in a platoon. The Jays are likely going to want to see full-time at bats from Hernandez and Grichuk at least, and Pillar has been a staple in the lineup for a few years now.
His numbers suggest he needs a little more seasoning
Back in 2017, it looked like McKinney was more than ready to take on big league pitching as he slashed an impressive .306/.336/.541 in 55 games in Triple-A. It was a big step up from his performance in Double-A even that same season, but he was showing that he could handle the bat against higher level pitching, and that he deserved a chance to move on.
Unfortunately 2018 was anything but kind to McKinney, that is until he showed up to Toronto and started getting regular at bats in the big leagues. Prior to that he slashed just .226/.299/.495 in 56 games with Triple-A Scranton, and didn’t fare any better in Buffalo, hitting just .203/.292/.453 in 20 games before his call-up.
I believe that the former first round pick is a much better hitter than his minor league numbers from last year would suggest, but it remains to be seen if he can stick in the big leagues or not. Chances are he’s going to be an opportunity with the Blue Jays at some point during the 2019 season, but with so many variables working against him right now, there’s a good chance that doesn’t happen right off the bat on Opening Day.