An Opening Day roster case for Pirates outfielder Billy McKinney

As Opening Day draws nearer and rosters begin to dwindle, some lesser-known or unexpected names remain in play to break camp with the big league club. Billy McKinney is one such case. Here's why he might make the team:

Mar 1, 2024; Bradenton, Florida, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Billy McKinney (29)
Mar 1, 2024; Bradenton, Florida, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Billy McKinney (29) / Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

One of the Pirates' many "under-the-radar" offseason acquisitions this winter was outfielder Billy McKinney. How he wound up in Pittsburgh was unorthodox, if not unfortunate—he signed as a minor league free agent on Dec. 9, but not with the Pirates. He was signed by the Yankees, but his third stint in the Bronx lasted just a week, as the Pirates then decided they wanted McKinney and sacrificed a portion of their international bonus pool to acquire him.

McKinney came to camp as a non-roster invitee and is certainly on the outside looking in, in terms of his chances of making the team out of Spring Training. The former first-round pick and a top-100 prospect has had a strong spring—that might be putting it mildly—and with a few breaks going his way, he just might head south with the team come Opening Day.

Spring Training 2024 has been kind to the 29-year-old thus far. After yet another strong performance on Tuesday, one in which he drew a walk and hit his first home run of the spring, his spring slash now sits at .364/.533/.545. What's more, he has reached base in each of his 12 appearances this spring.

McKinney's 2023 numbers also provide at least some semblance of hope that he might be on to something. His .227/.320/.406 slash line resulted in a wRC+ of 101, indicating that he was approximately a league-average hitter, making him a great value as a veteran on a minor-league deal.

He quietly posted some excellent underlying numbers as well. His swing decisions were superb - his 11.6 percent walk rate represented a career-high, and his chase rate of just 21.3 percent was in line with that of Marcus Semien and Steven Kwan, who finished in the 88th percentile.

McKinney also excelled at squaring up the baseball, as his sweet-spot percentage (batted balls with an ideal launch angle) of 43.3 percent was topped by only three qualified hitters - Freddie Freeman, Luis Arraez, and Brandon Belt. That's pretty good company!

Another aspect of McKinney's game that may work in his favor is his defensive versatility. Primarily a corner outfielder to this point of his career, he has experience at all three outfield spots as well as at first base. He has already started games at all four positions so far this spring.

Injuries to other bench candidates could also result in an opening on the Pirates' roster for McKinney on Opening Day.

Joshua Palacios got off to a late start this spring due to a lower-leg injury and subsequently succumbed to flu-like symptoms that also kept him out of game action. Likewise, Ji Hwan Bae hasn't played in a week due to a hip injury. Either of them missing extended time could render them unprepared for Opening Day.

As Billy McKinney lasts deeper into Spring Training - he has already outlasted last year's Opening Day starter in right field, Canaan Smith-Njigba - and continues to play well, he increases his chances of breaking camp with the team and becoming an impactful member of a Pirates team hoping to improve upon last year's 76-86 record.