This article kicks off a series that I'll be touching on periodically from now until Spring Training. By way of introduction, I'll be taking a look at a handful of Cubs prospects who find themselves at something of a career crossroads entering 2016. Some will be obvious, while others might surprise you. Regardless, each of these players either find themselves coming off of a down year in need of a big recovery, comes with a glaring flaw that appears to be derailing their ascent, or some combination of both factors.
To begin the series, I'm going to address a prospect whose inclusion herein may come as a big surprise. Outfielder Billy McKinney found himself on numerous Top-100 prospect lists prior to the 2015 season, coming in 81st at Baseball Prospectus and 83rd at Baseball America. There has never been any doubt that McKinney could hit for average, nor has there been any doubt that he would post attractive strikeout-to-walk ratios. Indeed, at every level in the minor leagues, McKinney has posted superb walk rates -- good for a career walk rate of 10.2% -- while minimizing strikeouts to the tune of a career rate of 15.7%.
McKinney has a classic profile for success, regardless of position: a plus bat, lots of walks, and few strikeouts.
So why is he in this article?
As is the case with any player, McKinney's profile plays better at some positions than others. If McKinney profiled as a slick-fielding middle infielder, he'd be an elite prospect in the mold of Francisco Lindor. If he were a lumbering first baseman, the profile described above wouldn't mean all that much.
McKinney lies somewhere in between as he's certainly not a premium defender but he's plenty athletic to hold down an everyday job in the field. On draft day, scouts were split on whether McKinney might manage to play center field as a professional or if he would be forced to an outfield corner. McKinney was expected to contribute roughly average speed, a below-average arm, and enough glove for any outfield spot with his range ultimately determining his home.
I have engaged in some debates here at BCB over the last year and a half regarding McKinney's outfield home, arguing that he didn't look like a centerfielder in the limited video that I saw of him. Since the last time I enjoyed such a discussion, I have added two pieces of information that leave me convinced that McKinney would be nothing more than a Kris Bryant-esque emergency centerfielder.
First, I saw McKinney in person this past summer. His swing was certainly not the majestic power stroke of Bryant or Kyle Schwarber's commanding boomstick, but McKinney nevertheless brought a smooth, line drive stroke to the dish. Pitchers didn't avoid him like they avoided Schwarber, but that doesn't tell us all that much. What I did notice about McKinney was that he appears to have filled out a decent bit since he was drafted and, in turn, he has slowed down. It's rather tough to see here, but this video from Spring Training still shows a moderately athletic ballplayer without the plus speed desired in center.
Second, McKinney has now played 122 games in the Cubs organization. How many has he played in center? Four. And none of them came in 2015. This isn't surefire proof that the Cubs would never try him in center -- we need look no further than Jason Heyward for proof of that! -- but it is an indication that the club views him as a corner outfielder.
And therein lies the problem for McKinney. As he has climbed the organizational ladder, finding a defensive home has become increasingly important. That is a testament to McKinney: the longer his bat keeps him relevant, the more important his defensive future becomes. Unfortunately, it is also something of a problem. Teams have expectations of corner outfielders. The largest of these: power.
Unfortunately, even though McKinney is a very good hitter, he just doesn't come with much in the way of home run pop. He did launch 10 home runs playing half-a-season in the extremely hitter-friendly California League in 2014, but outside of that friendly atmosphere, McKinney has just 11 home runs over his other 923 plate appearances as a professional. The over-the-wall power just isn't a part of his game...yet.
McKinney's swing is good enough that he could find his way into 15 home runs per year simply by continuing to make consistent hard contact as his frame fills out with additional muscle. Although he still wouldn't project as a star given his lack of another plus tool, teams can do far worse than having a corner outfielder with average power and plus on-base ability. However, without the power, McKinney has a hard time projecting as a regular in my book.
And that's why Billy McKinney finds himself at a crossroads coming off of a hairline fracture in his knee entering 2016, his age-21 season. If the power never emerges, he could be the next Brett Wallace. With some power, he could be the next Andre Ethier. Obviously one of those outcomes sounds much better to the Cubs. We should know a lot more in nine months.