The criteria were basic as the Mets searched for help in late May with many of the team’s key players on the injured list: an outfielder with major league experience who at least had a shot at upgrading the lineup.
In Billy McKinney, the Mets, to this point, have hit the jackpot. The former first-round pick hasn’t merely filled the space in right field vacated by Michael Conforto as he rehabs a strained right hamstring, but has produced over a small sample size at a level better than Conforto.
In 12 games since he arrived in a May 26 trade that sent minor league pitcher Pedro Quintana to the Brewers, the 26-year-old McKinney owns a .275/.341/.700 slash line with four homers and 11 RBIs. He had a breakout game Wednesday, when he slugged two homers in the Mets’ 14-1 victory at Baltimore.
“We knew he would put up these numbers,” acting general manager Zack Scott said Thursday in a text message, adding a smiling face emoji as punctuation.
The scouting report on McKinney, when he arrived, was solid power and defense. He has brought both to the equation, giving manager Luis Rojas one less lineup decision to ponder on a daily basis. McKinney’s major league past also included stints with the Yankees (for which he appeared in two games) and Blue Jays. His most significant playing time came for Toronto in 2019, when he appeared in 84 games with a slash line of .215/.274/.422, 12 homers and 28 RBIs.
“I’ve always been a big Billy McKinney fan,” said Kevin Pillar, his former Blue Jays teammate who has been reunited with him on the Mets. “He plays the game the right way. The guy goes out there every single day when he gets an opportunity to play, very similar to myself, he wants to be in the lineup every single day.
“He’s a first-round draft pick for a reason — he’s got a lot of tools. It just seems sometimes these guys need to find an opportunity to play.”
The Athletics selected McKinney with the 24th-overall pick of the 2013 draft, but midway through the following season traded him to the Cubs with Addison Russell and Dan Straily for Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija.
McKinney’s trade to the Mets occurred four days after he had been designated for assignment by the Brewers. The welcoming committee consisted largely of Pillar, who after finding out about the trade on social media, called McKinney and told him he would be picking him up at the hotel the following day.
“[Pillar] is just first class, he’s a true leader,” McKinney said. “He’s a guy that ever since I first played with him in the big leagues it’s just been a joy to be with him and learn from him.”
Added Pillar: “I was just excited to see him and excited for him to go out there and get another opportunity to perform and show that he’s a big leaguer and can help impact a winning ballclub.”
Conforto is expected to test his hamstring running the bases this weekend at Citi Field and could soon be cleared for a minor league rehab assignment. Team president Sandy Alderson suggested in an interview Thursday on MLB Network that Conforto could be about two weeks away from rejoining the Mets.
Until then, McKinney will try to continue his recent surge and show team officials he can be an important depth piece as players begin returning from the injured list, forcing roster decisions.
“I’m just trying not to make too much of the moment and enjoy it,” McKinney said. “I feel like I’m having fun and everybody in the clubhouse is doing that. It’s an easy team to join and just have fun.”