McKenna: "Whenever that opportunity arrives, I'm ready for it"

The improved outfield depth in the Orioles system sets up some interesting competitions next spring. Presents some tricky roster decisions. Makes some players viewed as outsiders motivated to kill the narrative.

Ryan McKenna hasn't played above Double-A, with the cancellation of the minor league season preventing an introduction to the International League. He's expected to begin 2021 at Triple-A Norfolk if permitted, but won't be penning his concession speech before arriving at the Ed Smith Stadium complex.

"For me, my mindset right now is we're chasing a job," he said last week. "I know just being a younger team in general, there's a lot of talented ballplayers in this organization. But for me right now, it's seizing that opportunity when you can, and everyone else has the same mentality.

"We all get all, we're part of the same organization and we root for each other, but that only makes us better. As players it motivates us to get better and try to perform at the peak of our ability. So yeah, for right now we're chasing a job."

Thumbnail image for McKenna-Runs-White-ST-sidebar.jpgFor McKenna, it could be as a reserve whose speed and defense are assets off the bench. He'd appear to be blocked otherwise by center fielders Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins and corner outfielders Ryan Mountcastle, Anthony Santander and Trey Mancini - with first base and the designated hitter spot ways to create some room.

The 40-man roster also includes DJ Stewart, who went on a home run binge in September before cooling down, and recent additions Yusniel Diaz and Chris Shaw.

The rumor mill includes Yasiel Puig.

"I know I can play all three outfield positions at an elite level," McKenna said. "I'm ready and I'm confident that when and if they put me there - center field, right field, left field - I'm ready to help the ballclub win games. Whenever that opportunity arrives, I'm ready for it. It's just, keep proving that.

"It's kind of out of my control, but at the end of the day I feel ready and confident."

McKenna worked out and played intrasquad games at the alternate camp site in Bowie prior to his return home. He "set up shop" in Houston, where he continues to train and incorporate baseball activities.

"Being in Texas is nice because the fields are open outside all year round," he said.

McKenna, 23, spent the entire 2019 season with the Baysox and slashed .232/.321/.365 with 26 doubles, six triples, nine home runs and 54 RBIs in 135 games. He also stole 25 bases in 36 attempts.

Attention really came to McKenna the previous summer with Single-A Frederick, when he slashed .377/.467/.556 in 67 games and earned a promotion to Bowie. Assigned to Glendale in the Arizona Fall League, he appeared in 17 games and batted .344/.474/.590 with six doubles, three triples and a home run and made the All-AFL team.

The coronavirus pandemic halted McKenna's rise in the system, after the Orioles protected him in the 2019 Rule 5 draft, but it couldn't stop his development. He was placed in the 60-man pool and given the kind of instruction that should get him ready for his next spring training camp.

"I just think the reps," he said when asked how he benefited from the alternate site. "A lot of people lost a full season and I think for a lot of guys that were there it was awesome to be around the team environment. I know it was a little bit different with the way it was set up due to the coronavirus, so I just think the reps and continuous live-game simulation was huge.

"I felt like I did well there. Being in front of the guys that are looking for you to have an opportunity in the future, it's always good to be in front of them and build relationships with those guys. I think those were a couple of the benefits that we had."

The Orioles wanted to assign McKenna to Norfolk in April and decide later if he was ready to debut in the majors.

"Out of spring training they told me that's where I was going to be to start the season," he said. "I felt really confident with the conversation that we had both with (executive vice president/general manager Mike) Elias and Hyder (manager Brandon Hyde). I thought it was good going forward, but you never know what can happen with the pandemic. I was just making the most out of it and trying to just keep improving where you can."

The Orioles protected six players at last week's deadline to set the 40-man roster, and a maligned farm system is gaining respect and momentum as it climbs in the rankings.

"There's been rankings out there. I don't follow it too much, but you hear it from time to time. I know Baltimore is up near the top and I can just see it, being a part of it. Even guys that they've recently added in the draft and at the younger levels, we're pretty dominant in the minor league system so far," McKenna said.

"It's obviously going to be interesting to see how that all plays out in the future. Wishing healthy careers for everybody involved and going forward it's going to be exciting. I think it's going to be really good."

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