When the Cubs traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Athletics, I was completely unfamiliar with Billy McKinney. I possibly should have been, but I wasn't. In most scenarios, McKinney would have been sent to Beloit in his 19-year old season, his first full season of pro ball. However, the A's brass opted to send him to the California League, which I ignore almost entirely. Had he been in Beloit, I would have seen him play a few times against the Kane County Cougars. But, they didn't, so I didn't. Nonetheless, McKinney deserves an article all of his own.
A schism on baseball boards that is tough to overcome is a schism that has fractured front offices for a long stretches. Some people think they can watch a player play, and know if he will be a productive player. Some fans/scouts/executives think raw numbers are more the real deal. The current Cubs brass acknowledge that both are important, but also rely rather heavily on personality types, which really can't be judged from watching a three-game series or a spreadsheet.
McKinney has been a rather curious topic here at BCB recently. Some note his age and level, and are impressed. Some look at his stats, and seem a bit underwhelmed. It's doubtful many of us here have the third piece of the puzzle, the player's inner-drive, in mind. You may or may not think that's important, but some in the front office really buy into the premise. And that will never show up on a stat sheet or ream of line items in a document.
I was trying to think of a Cubs comp for McKinney from the past, and it's rather difficult. It would have to be someone in the relatively recent era, as comping anyone to Scot Thomson would be horribly pointless. Felix Pie was an international signing, so the closest comp anyone might be familiar with is also as bad of a comp as there is: Corey Patterson.
Patterson was a flashy player, keyed by speed and power. McKinney sounds to be more of a cerebral player, very willing to take a walk. Despite it being as off as comparing Kris Bryant to Dave Kingman, let's see what we can learn from looking at Patterson and McKinney at the same time.
Corey Patterson was drafted in the first round (third overall pick) in 1998 out of high school in Georgia and would make a major splash in the Midwest League the following season, after not playing in any Rookie Ball leagues. Patterson OPS'd .949 in Lansing, including 35 doubles, 17 triples, and 20 homers. It was a very impressive debut. He skipped the next level (High-A) and went straight to Double-A, where he was four years younger than the league average.
His home run total climbed to 22, though his triples fell to five. He fanned 115 times in a bit over 500 at bats. He walked 45. His OPS was a still-impressive .829, and he debuted in the majors later that season. Much of 2001 found him in Iowa, where his OPS continued to sink.
Patterson had a long career (including over 4,100 major-league at-bats), but there are aspects of his game that never entirely developed. It's a game of conjecture to guess at if different handling would have produced a better, more complete player, but he had a lengthy career nonetheless.
Billy McKinney played rookie ball at two different levels in 2013 after being selected 24th overall in June 2013. he was really impressive in nine games in the NY-Penn League, which equates to playing in Boise. In his 40 plate appearances, he walked three times, fanned four, and had an OPS of .964. He also had four extra-base hits, with at least one of each type.
McKinney made the jump to High-A Stockton at the same basic age that Patterson was in Lansing. McKinney had an OPS of .730, which is, obviously, lower than Patterson's numbers in the Midwest League or Southern League.
That McKinney, or Patterson, advanced as far as they did at their young ages is really impressive. You don't have to select either one, or somewhat similar current comp, Albert Almora, as the best-est there is. Almora and McKinney both have strengths and weaknesses, to be sure, but for a player to be ahead of the curve age-wise isn't a bad thing. Almost every teen ball player has things to upgrade. (McKinney would soon be starting his sophomore year of college.) What should be being asked is, what is the likelihood that they will learn the needed lessons?
Baseball fans tend to lack patience when it comes to young players, and Cubs fans are no exception. McKinney has drawn 47 walks and pounded 11 homers in a year in which he, arguably, should have been playing at a lower level. I'm good with that. I'm also good that it sounds like he is a hard worker, and a good teammate, as I am a fan of the third rail of talent evaluation.
McKinney is ahead of where he was expected to be. Whether he develops into a 20 homer per year type, we'll have to see. That he hits left-handed helps with the right-handed-heavy composition of the lineup-to-be, with Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and Addison Rusell all being right-handed swingers. McKinney could develop into a .290 hitter with command of the strike-zone and power. Or he might end up being a quality back-up, capable of filling in where needed.
He could be a three-slot outfielder. Or more likely, more of a corner guy, with and arm not necessarily strong enough for right field. Either way, with the program currently set in place, McKinney should be fairly well versed in all the things needed for him to succeed at the highest level. We can argue until November about what McKinney will become. But, what will be more important is, what will McKinney become in a few years?
He sounds to have the basics down fairly well, he works counts, and, for whatever it's worth, seems to get good plate appearances in with runners on base. That isn't certain to carry up the levels of development. What I would enjoy seeing McKinney turn into is a Cubs version of longtime Yankees stalwart Paul O'Neill.
Am I asking for too much? Probably. However, as the next waves of hitters and position players reach Wrigley, there are two things I'm reasonably confident of. They will be prepared for what they will be facing. They will be good teammates. Will that guarantee success, or rings? No. However, I'd rather have the guys on my team be generally likeable and ready for the challenges to come. With McKinney, in whichever year that ends up being, I don't fear for either.
Which is more awareness of him than I had a month ago.