As draft approaches, breakout Orioles prospect Ryan McKenna becomes rare prep outfielder to emerge

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

During any baseball team's preparations for a given draft, it is faced with confronting some of the realities of its past: which types of players the club has succeeded with, which archetypes it’s missed on and the results of that in the farm system.

This spring, as the Orioles scouts and executives gathered to prepare for the 2018 edition of the draft, there's a player right up the road who is showing signs of not only defying an organizational weak spot but one that all of baseball struggles with — the toolsy prep outfielder.

Ryan McKenna, the hottest hitter in the Orioles system and one of the breakout players in all of the minor leagues, was a fourth-round pick in 2015 out of St. Thomas Aquinas High (N.H.) by way of Maine, a rare dip into the high school outfielder pool for a team that trends toward lower-risk college bats.

His ascent from three uneven seasons after signing puts him at least on a trajectory to break a 10-year hoodoo for the organization and overcome a stigma that goes far beyond the Warehouse. And his progress, especially this year, comes as the result of his overcoming so much of what has held back players in his position.

"It's hard for high school players to make it to the big leagues," Orioles farm director Brian Graham said. "There's a real low percentage of high school players that actually get drafted, sign and perform at a level so that they get to the big leagues. It's a much lower percentage of high school players in the big leagues than there is college players, so when you see guys who are progressing like Ryan McKenna, it's really exciting. It's exciting, and it's impressive."

Through 52 games at High-A Frederick, McKenna batted .365/.448/.519 with 15 doubles, a triple and five home runs while playing a strong center field. But the 21-year-old’s rise could be a case study in the challenges that prove Graham, and the underlying data about success rates with college players and high school players, to be true.

Around the game, some of the brightest stars from Mike Trout to Bryce Harper to Byron Buxton were outfielders drafted out of high school. Mookie Betts was drafted out of high school but as an infielder before he came to the outfield, and some of the game's top prospects out of each draft are the five-tool outfielders teams can dream on.

Getting them to the majors — or having them succeed at any level — isn't as easy. None of the high school outfielders from the past three drafts have made the majors, and only one in 2014 — Los Angeles Dodgers second-round pick Alex Verdugo — has reached the majors from that draft. The impact for these players, outside of the superstars, typically takes a while to pop.

The Orioles hardly even traffic in the area. Outside of 2013 supplemental first-round pick Josh Hart, a Georgia prep outfielder who was released this spring having never made it out of Frederick, they hardly take such players. The last high school outfielders they drafted to make the majors were 2008 second-round pick Xavier Avery and 2008 third-rounder LJ Hoes, who both reached the majors in 2012.

McKenna readily acknowledges the challenges that both he faced and the problems that come when you're a high school player plucked from home and paid to play the game. Signed by Kirk Fredriksson, the Orioles believed he was a precociously strong teenager with speed both on the bases and in the field, that he had the ability to grow into some power and could have a major league bat.

"Not a lot of clubs got a good look at him in the spring," executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "We had a good portfolio on him."

Duquette said McKenna’s speed was his carrying tool, but as is often the case for young players who have the potential to contribute with all five tools, it's the hitting that comes along slowly — and causes the most angst. Struggling at something immediately after you commit to do it for a living will do that.

"I think I found that out real quick — it's every day," McKenna said. "It's ruthless. It's relentless. The grind is always there. That's just a perspective as you grow up as a man. I was 18 when I came into the league. I was just a kid for the most part.

"I had no idea, It was just, 'Sweet, I get to play baseball?' I was all excited, and I loved the Orioles, so I said, 'Let's go.' College guys are a little bit more seasoned — they've been through a lot of this stuff. They've failed in college and they can bring that here."

McKenna instead had to fail for the first time as a professional. After signing in 2015, he hit .265/.366/.324 with one extra-base hit in 10 games with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Orioles. He didn't break camp with a full-season affiliate in 2016, instead going to Short-A Aberdeen, where he hit .241 with a .629 OPS and 10 doubles in 62 games.

But it was in his first full season — 2017 at Low-A Delmarva — where things started to click. He entered July batting .231 with a .626 OPS before McKenna and those around him say things changed. He ended up batting .256 with a .712 OPS, and 26 of his 42 extra-base hits came in the last two-plus months of the season.

“When he was here, we saw strides from the first half to the second half. A completely different player,” said Buck Britton, the Delmarva hitting coach a season ago who now manages the Shorebirds. “He's got a real chance to be special if he continues to develop, but for him, it's learning the game and learning who he is as a player, and understanding that he's got some natural ability that a lot of people don't have."

Ryan Minor, the Shorebirds manager last season who jumped a level with McKenna to Frederick this year, said the foundation was laid there for the breakout McKenna has experienced this season.

"He's still a big, physical, strong kid, but whatever he did in the offseason with his swing and his mental approach has really taken a big step forward for him," Minor said. "He's able to repeat what he's done prior to this point, where in the past his focus sometimes would [waver], as young players always do and always have. … That's been a big thing for him. He's been really good at the plate for us. It's been pretty fun to watch."

McKenna credits part of it to what he does on the field, and part what he's learned to do off of it. Everyone from Minor and Britton to Kevin Bradshaw, Matt Merullo, Jeff Manto and Howie Clark have worked with him on his swing and approach along the way.

The college players he has come up with — to say nothing of the game itself — taught him that everything before that day, good or bad, is irrelevant, from his dominance growing up to his struggles as a young pro.

"Coming here and learning and failing, that was the biggest part," McKenna said. "Just making a little positivity. A lot of guys talk about that, but it's really so true. You've got to bring that confidence and positivity, that you're going to succeed every at-bat."

He practices visualization to bring that to fruition every day at the ballpark. If a pitcher has a slow windup, he times it out in his mind to start later and creates a plan for the arsenal he's been prepared for ahead of time.

"Visualization is really big for me," McKenna said. "I can see the ball coming out of his hand over and over and over before I go up to the plate. That's huge for me, because I've succeeded already in my mind. I've just got to go out there and perform. I think getting into the habit of doing that every day really helps going forward, being able to perform well."

That's translated into what the Orioles see as a vastly improved hitter this season. Minor said McKenna has developed an outstanding two-strike approach, is doing damage on pitches in the zone and isn't chasing outside of it as often as he did in 2017.

"For me, he's done so many things well this year, and most notably, pitch recognition, the understanding of the strike zone," Graham said. "He's starting to get a better feel for pitches in the strike zone, pitches out of the strike zone. He's recognizing breaking balls. He's done a great job physically and fundamentally of continuing to improve. He works really hard at it, and I give Ryan Minor and his coaching staff a lot of credit. I give Jeff Manto a lot of credit. This kid has taken to instruction extremely well, and he's done a great job."

Said Duquette: "His bat-to-ball skills are good, his speed is good and his on-base capability has improved dramatically this year. He uses the whole field, and took a big step forward this year. So, I'm sure that's gratifying for Gary Rajsich and his scouts."

McKenna's tools have always had him on rival evaluators' radar as a professional, and even if it never showed up in games, his physicality was hard to miss during pregame work. One compared him to Austin Hays, the Orioles' top prospect, in how he had developed an all-fields approach and understanding of his swing. Two others put major league grades on him this year after viewing him as much more of a project while at Delmarva.

At the root of it all is a mindset that eludes some high school players who never find the success McKenna has through the first two months of this season, and whose outlooks are far less bright. McKenna had to learn it the hard way, but now that he has, there's a lot to like about his future.

"You've just got to fall in love with the process," McKenna said, "That's the most fun for me. I've learned to grow and do that."

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