McKenna: "I’ll play wherever they need me to"

Ryan McKenna is one of those unique guys in baseball who has a defined role without knowing exactly where he’s playing on any given day. Or if he’s playing.

He’s as set as an unsettled player can be, if that makes sense.

The Orioles don’t need McKenna to hit .300 or to be an on-base machine, though they’d gladly take it. They just want him to bring his speed, his tools to handle every outfield position, and his commitment to stay ready for any situation and any point in a game.

The Ferrari parked in the garage. Eagerly waiting to rev the engine.

“Me and Brandon (Hyde) have a pretty good relationship,” he said recently. “He’s been pretty open with what I’ve been doing and saying, ‘Hey, I like what you’re doing, we really like you as a player.’ And it’s been awesome to have that open communication.

“I’ll play wherever he needs me to. I love helping the team win. That’s forefront of my focus every day. I’m a competitor and obviously I understand certain situations.”

McKenna demonstrated his value and trustworthiness in the field, as if further evidence was necessary, during last week’s start in center field in Fort Myers.

Stud pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez tossed a scoreless first inning but needed McKenna to sprint back to the warning track for the catch and race in to reach down for a line drive with some intense velocity on it. McKenna was tested again in the third on another line drive, and again he handled it.

Kyle Bradish stranded a runner in the first inning Friday night after Minnesota’s Matt Wallner drilled a pitch to center, where McKenna took a couple steps to his left and made the catch. The ball threatened to sail on him, but he snared it.

McKenna also reached on a bunt single and lined a leadoff double into the right field corner in the seventh inning. Pinch-runner Colton Cowser scored the tying run.

“He was super valuable for us last year,” Hyde said of McKenna. “He played in a ton of games late. What he adds to our club defensively is, center fielders are hard to find and Mac’s a guy who can play three spots in the outfield and play them well. But also the pinch-running ability with the speed. And he’s continuing to show that here in this camp.

“That’s something we definitely take into account is the center field defense. That’s important. So, you’re going to see him move around three spots the rest of this month.”

More starts are available in center field with Cedric Mullins playing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. Austin Hays will get some of them. Kyle Stowers was a firm “maybe” when manager Brandon Hyde was asked about it.

“I just play wherever skip wants me to,” McKenna said. “Obviously, I try to use my tools as much as I can. I’ve taken the most reps probably in my career in center, so I’m comfortable out there and I’ll play wherever they need me to.”

The wait will be a long one for anyone anticipating the day that McKenna arrives in a camp confident in his status on the active roster. He may like the odds, but he won’t relax because of them.

McKenna also has good vision. He can see outfield prospects Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad in the same row of lockers, knowing they won’t begin the season in the majors but are getting close.

“Every time I step out on the field I want to play as well as possible and help the team win,” he said. “I enjoy bringing my experience and just being around the team from the big leagues, and then coming into camp and hanging out with all these young kids. A bunch of good, talented players here. So yeah, it’s obviously very competitive and I just like bringing the experience that I have and coming in and enjoying it.”

McKenna turned 26-years-old on Valentine’s Day and he was a rookie in 2021, but he qualifies as a veteran in this clubhouse. It can age a person.

“Yeah, I guess,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m quite there yet but definitely some experience helps. I know that’s obviously where everybody wants to be, so just being a positive light and a good teammate in every aspect.”

Notes: Right-hander Corey Kluber is expected to start against the Orioles on Opening Day in Boston, according to reports from Red Sox media. Left-hander Chris Sale would follow him in the rotation.

Hyde told the media yesterday that first baseman/outfielder Ryan O'Hearn is day-to-day with a sore knee, DL Hall will throw anther live batting practice session on Tuesday, and the Opening Day starter will be announced later this week after Wednesday's off-day.

Spenser Watkins starts against the Braves today in a split-squad game in North Port. Kyle Gibson starts the home game against the Tigers.

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