Billy McKinney is not supposed to be a member of the New York Mets. McKinney was put on waivers by the Toronto Blue Jays in September of 2020 and thus was readily available for any team to claim, which the Milwaukee Brewers did. At the time, the Mets had what appeared to be too many corner outfielders, the defensive positions McKinney is best served playing defensively. Although the team added center fielders in the offseason, the plan was still to start Brandon Nimmo (probably best served in left field) in Centerfield, partially because they needed space for Dominic Smith (a first baseman turned left fielder) and Michael Conforto to get regular playing time.
McKinney’s presence on the team is a microcosm of the oddity of this season. The Mets are clinging onto first place in the National League east behind stellar pitching, vastly improved defense and arguably the worst offense in the league. Yet the offense was supposed to be a strength, with the addition of Francisco Lindor to a lineup full of young hitters from both sides of the plate. Those young hitters, including Lindor, have vastly underperformed and the team has had to deal with a long list of injuries that have forced the Mets to rely heavily on players the team had thought would be bench players or organizational depth. McKinney is the most successful of several players brought in during the season, with a 0.6 WAR in limited plate appearance and an OPS over 800. That success has allowed him to maintain a place on the team even after injured players like Conforto, Jeff McNeil and others returned to the lineup.
Such is the story of McKinney’s career though. A first round pick by the Oakland Athletics out of high school in 2013, McKinney immediately jumped into the top five on most Athletics prospects lists. He was considered a “pure hitter” with a plus glove and bat speed. After two and a half years in the organization in the low minors, his prospect status was high enough that he was the second prospect in a package the Athletics sent to the Cubs at the trade deadline for two starting pitchers as they made a run for the wild card.
Being traded for pitching became what McKinney was best known for. Yes, he broke into top 100 prospect lists in 2015 and 2016, but all that lead to was being traded by Cubs for another pitcher at the trade deadline in 2016, again as the second prospect, this time to the Yankees. This was followed in 2018 by being the primary prospect in the Yankee’s trade for J.A. Happe. By time the Happe trade was completed, McKinney had played a grand total of 9.1 innings in the field and been traded three different times for four pitchers who had amassed nearly 3500 innings of work amongst them. That has to be the answer to a trivia question somewhere.
Yet by the time the Mets traded for McKinney due to a string of injuries that depleted its outfield reserves, his status had dwindled. He had been given playing time with the Blue Jays and Brewers but hadn’t distinguished himself. Yes, he had some pop in his bat and was a strong corner outfielder, but his paltry 619 OPS and the fact that Mets were going to be his sixth organization in eight years didn’t lead to the deal getting much fanfare.
McKinney has held up his end. Yes he’s only hitting .226, but he’s played excellent defense, started to walk more (10.5% rate up from his career 7.5%) rate and continued to hit with some power, leading to an OPS over 800 despite the low batting average. Without the likes of McKinney, the Mets would not be in first place.
So what does this mean for the future? McKinney definitely has a place on the team as he isn’t arbitration eligible until 2023 and the Mets have control of him until 2026. That status will be important as the Mets make some serious decisions heading into the 2022 season. Depending on how the season progresses, the Mets have tough decisions to make about Conforto, Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman. Conforto has really struggled offensively and with injuries. He’s going to have to enjoy a strong second half of the season for the Mets to consider signing him to a large contract (like Lindor) and McKinney’s presence could factor into that if Conforto continues to struggle. Also, having a cheap player like McKinney, even if he isn’t a regular, allows the Mets to move money to places of need. There is a strong chance the Mets won’t re-sign Syndergaard, Conforto and Stroman, especially with pending contract discussions with the likes of Pete Alonso and others, to be looked at down the road. Could McKinney elevate his play to force the Mets to consider cutting ties with Conforto? As much as we’d all hate that, such a move would allow the Mets front office to better manage the money aspect of the upcoming season. That could mean re-signing Stroman (who deserves it), making a move for a starting third baseman, center fielder or to add to the bullpen.
Does that mean McKinney is better than Conforto? Not necessarily, but that’s not the point. The issue is that the organization does not want to be put in a situation where they are loaded with contracts that carry significant heft and can’t be moved. Maybe saving some money on right field is the way to go. Maybe not, but this season has been so odd that who knows what will happen next. Considering what’s gone on so far, it appears to be players like McKinney that are going to be a big part of fueling the Mets, hopefully to the playoffs. That would cement McKinney into Mets lore, along with so many other secondary guys who helped spur the team to success. At least he wouldn’t be the guy always traded for a bunch of pitchers.