Long on McKenna: “He impressed me”

The optioning and reassignment of players to Twin Lakes Park is done only to reduce the camp roster. They aren’t confined to the complex as if surrounded by an electrical fence. The Orioles have the freedom to play them in Grapefruit League games.

Out of sight on occasion, for sure, but not banned from the site. They are still able to remain visible and fresh in the minds of the evaluators on the Ed Smith side of spring training.

The last round of cuts on March 16 removed infielders Rylan Bannon and Tyler Nevin and outfielders Yusniel Diaz and Ryan McKenna. Check the box score from Tuesday afternoon’s game against the Rays and you’ll find Nevin replacing Trey Mancini at first base, Diaz replacing Anthony Santander in right, McKenna pinch-running and playing left and center, and Bannon subbing for Maikel Franco at third base.

Evan Phillips was reassigned March 12, replaced Dillon Tate Tuesday and notched the final out of the fourth inning.

That group will work out at the alternate camp site and await the beginning of the Triple-A season. Only Phillips has major league experience.

Diaz started in right field last night in Fort Myers, Ryan Mountcastle was scratched and replaced by Nevin in left field, and the travel roster included McKenna, Phillips and left-hander Zac Lowther, who was optioned March 12.

Lowther retired all eight batters he faced, recording nine outs and cleaning up a bases-loaded, no-out mess that he inherited.

Thumbnail image for McKenna-Runs-White-ST-sidebar.jpgMcKenna hasn’t been ignored or overlooked despite the fuss made over the other outfielders in camp. The more established, as well as Diaz, the No. 10 prospect in the system, per MLBPipeline.com.

Hitting coach Don Long was asked this week in his Zoom call about young players in camp who made an impression on him. He began his answer by speaking in broad terms and zeroed in on McKenna, who turned 24 on Valentine’s Day.

“This whole group we’ve had here, including the guys that have been here and gone over to Twin Lakes, they’re all good workers and they all want opportunity and our challenge has been finding opportunities within the protocols and the intakes times,” Long replied. “In a normal spring training we would make early cage time available for everybody, and we just haven’t been able to do that. We’ve had to find spots in the morning mainly for the starters in the game that day and then either throughout the day or at the end of the day if there are some stay-back guys.

“I think Ryan McKenna’s done a great job. I’ve been impressed with his command of the strike zone. I think there’s a lot of parts of his game that play well offensively and defensively and on the bases. He’s been open to maybe adjusting something here and there to improve. He doesn’t chase a lot of pitches. His challenge was when he did swing, just the way he went about it, he was fouling a lot of pitches off or putting them in play, but not hard, and so he’s been open and willing to make some adjustments. He impressed me.”

The fourth-round pick in 2015 out of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in New Hampshire hasn’t played above the Double-A level and lost a possible chance to debut in the majors last summer due to the cancellation of the minor league season. He’ll be moving around the Norfolk outfield, a plus defender in center and certainly capable of manning a corner.

The arm strength, speed, athleticism and instincts grade highly.

He figures to keep impressing, as he’s done in the last two Sarasota camps, the club not fixating on his .217 average this spring. There’s plenty to appreciate about McKenna, the No. 16 prospect in the organization.

There’s also plenty of room for improvement, based on his .232/.321/.365 slash line in 567 plate appearances at Double-A Bowie in 2019. The Orioles know they can get more out of him.

Rather than just fixate on spring training numbers, Long studies the overall quality of the at-bats

“Are they swinging at good pitches, are they more often than not able to lay off the pitcher’s pitch or pitches outside of the zone,” he said. “From there, look at, when they’re putting the ball in play, what’s happening. Reading ball flight, are they able to consistently hit the ball hard? Because the end result that they all desire is really a byproduct of a good process and a good approach, so as long as that part is in order, swinging at the right pitches, making the right moves, they really don’t control the outcome, the very end results.

“So, we try to help them, which is a challenge for any hitter because they all want the results of the hit, but we’re really trying to get them to think in a process-oriented way and take care of what you can control, and once the ball leaves your bat, that part’s over. And like I said, that’s a big challenge for so many guys. But if you think that way, your best hitters have the ability to do that, they have the ability to say, ‘I got the right pitch to hit, I made a good move on it, I put the ball in play hard,’ and even if the box score says they’re 0-for-1, in their mind they’re still 1-for-1 and that’s what we really try to get them to tap into, and that’s what I look at here, also.”

The outfield crowd could force McKenna into a reserve role. An occasional starter, defensive replacement, pinch-runner. Maybe he’s able to wedge himself into the lineup.

There are tools, makeup and an openness to instruction that can get him to the Orioles this summer. Long sees it.

“Anybody as a young player who can come into major league camp, he got a lot of opportunity to play and really managed the strike zone the way that he did, I think is important to any hitter,” Long said. “But especially as a young hitter, when you show the ability to do that in-game, that’s a good sign for me moving forward.”

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