Since Theo Epstein took over the Cubs in October of 2011, the Cubs have been stockpiling assets at a startling rate. All of it was part of building a healthy organization, starting with foundation pieces in the minor league system, working up through the major league club. After all of the work on the roster and on the system over the past few years, the number of survivors from before the Epstein/ Hoyer era remain few. Gone are former top prospects, Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters. Along the same lines, veterans who wouldn’t be part of the future of the Cubs, like Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano, were also allowed to leave or were traded away. The last significant remaining remnants of the Hendry era are short stop Starlin Castro and the final first round pick, Javier Baez.
Epstein and Hoyer arrived and went on a mission to add as much young talent as possible. Over the last three seasons, the Cubs have traded 6 starting pitchers, some of which were signed as buy low free agents that could be flipped into talent. Scott Feldman was traded with Steve Clevenger for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop, for example.
Fans have become accustomed to the young players the Cubs have added. It all started by trading Andrew Cashner to the Padres for Anthony Rizzo, who was drafted by Epstein’s front office in Boston, traded to Hoyer’s front office in San Diego, and required by Epstein and Hoyer in Chicago. His acquisition was the first domino to fall. In the winter of Pujols and Fielder, the Cubs got Rizzo. They continued on by signing Jorge Soler and drafting Albert Almora. And Kris Bryant. And Kyle Schwarber. And going on an international free agent binge, adding Eloy Jimenez, the top international free agent in the 2013 cycle. Matt Garza was traded for four players who may all spend at least a portion of 2015 on the major league roster. And they acquired Addison Russell when trading away Jeff Samardzija. They also acquired Billy McKinney.
In many of the minor league systems around baseball, Billy McKinney wouldn’t be an after-thought. He was ranked the number 81 prospect on Baseball Prospectus‘ Top 101 list and 6th in the organization. He comes in at 83 on the Baseball America Top 100, also placing 6th in the organization. For comparison sake, the Brewers’ top prospect, CF Tyrone Taylor, is ranked #93 on the Baseball America Top 100 and SS Orlando Arcia comes in at the same spot on the Prospectus list, as their top Brewers prospect. While this may appear to be indiscriminate picking on the Brewers, it does highlight the depth of the Cubs’ system, regarded by many as the best in baseball, against the Brewers, who have a comparatively weak system. That is to say, in some systems, McKinney would be the top prospect. With the Cubs, he is a forgotten man.
The scouting reports on McKinney are fairly consistent. He is a good contact hitter. His hand-eye coordination is good, and he has an advanced approach for being only 20 years old. He has decent speed, but is suited for a corner outfield, but does not have the arm to play right field…meaning he is likely to develop into a left fielder. He doesn’t have outstanding power. And his swing leaves him vulnerable on the inner half.
Before being acquired by the Cubs as “the other guy” in the Samardzija/ Russell deal, McKinney was a 2013 first round (24th overall) pick by the A’s. His first full season of professional baseball was an adventure for him. He wasn’t special in the California League, which is typically beneficial to hitters. There wasn’t much exciting about his .241/.330/.400 slash in 75 games before the trade. In the pitcher friendly Florida State League, though, McKinney found his stride and likely helped find his way onto the Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America Top 100 lists. He slashed the quietest .301/.390/.432 any prospect could in an organization where fans were hyper focused on the system. In some ways, that probably works to his benefit. With all the attention paid to Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, and Kris Bryant, McKinney is free to play his game.
What the scouts saw from McKinney was portrayed in his statistics. For the season, McKinney had a walk rate of just above 11.2%, showing off some of the mature approach that appears in each publication’s scouting report. Moreover, his strike out rate of 18.4% on the season highlights his ability to make consistent contact. The 11 HRs don’t make anybody stand up and take notice, especially since 10 were before the trade, but he does have extra base power, driving 24 doubles and 6 triples on the season. At 6’1″, 195 pounds, his body still has some room to grow, fill out, and get stronger. Some of those doubles and triples may turn into home runs as he matures physically. Much of his body still appears slight, which is natural for a player who is still very young. He will probably never be a feared power hitter, but 20-25 home runs from McKinney isn’t out of the question as he gets bigger and stronger. While that may not be the most desirable profile for a left fielder, it’s not bad.
In the Cubs’ system, it is easy to lose sight of a quality young player like Billy McKinney. He does not come equipped with tools that make everyone take notice, like the huge power of Soler, Bryant, Baez, and Schwarber. He is not the graceful center fielder that Albert Almora is. And he isn’t the polished athlete that the player he was traded with, Addison Russell, is. It is also easy to lose sight of him because he will only be reaching AA Tennessee this season. But McKinney could become a valuable piece for the Cubs, either as a left-handed bat or, just as likely, as a piece used to acquire help at the trade deadline or over the winter.
Reaching AA this season is an important milestone for McKinney. This is the year where he can make serious noise, both in the Cubs organization and around baseball. He will still be very young for the Southern League, which could lead him to some struggles, but with his approach and ability to make contact, 2015 could be a breakout year for one of the next wave of Cubs prospects. Whether he is tagged as one of the next in line for promotion, possibly as early as 2016, or if he is traded to help the major league team, McKinney is an asset. And having an asset of his quality buried as deeply as he has been behind players who get a great deal of (deserved) praise speaks volumes to the depth, quality, and strength of the minor league system and the organization as a whole.