CHALLENGED FROM THE START
Where the A's have assigned top picks for their first full pro seasons, since 2005
Cliff Pennington, 2005
: Stockton, '06
Trevor Cahill, 2006
: Kane County, '07
James Simmons, 2007
: Midland, '08
Jemile Weeks, 2008
: Stockton, '09
Grant Green, 2009
: Stockton, '10
Michael Choice, 2010
: Stockton, '11
Sonny Gray, 2011
: Midland, '12
Addison Russell, 2012
: Stockton, '13
Billy McKinney, 2013
: Stockton, '14
In recent years, the Oakland A's have not been shy about giving their first overall picks aggressive assignments in their first full professional seasons. Since 2005, the only A's top pick not to start his first full professional season at the High-A level or higher was Trevor Cahill. Cahill was a second-round selection in 2006, but the A's first-overall that year. He spent his first full professional season with Low-A Kane County in 2007, but in 2008 he advanced from High-A to Double-A and was in the big leagues by 2009.
Given that history, perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that the A's assigned 2013 first-round pick Billy McKinney to the High-A Stockton Ports this year. However, given that McKinney was drafted out of high school and played in only nine games above the Rookie League level last year, it was expected that the A's would take it slow with McKinney this year and start him in the Low-A Midwest League.
If that had been the plan at the start of spring camp, McKinney changed the thinking of the A's front office with an impressive showing during his time in Phoenix in March. McKinney played well against advanced competition throughout the spring, both in big league camp and in minor league camp. McKinney became a regular call-up from minor league camp towards the end of spring training, and he wound up netting 13 official at-bats in 12 big league games. He hit .385.
Despite the strong spring, McKinney was as surprised as anyone when the A's finally announced that he would head to Stockton – and not Beloit – for the 2014 season.
"I wasn't really sure I was going to have this opportunity until the day they told me to come here," McKinney said about his assignment. "I'm excited to have the chance to be here. I'm going to give it my all and see what happens."
Thus far, McKinney has rewarded the A's faith in him. Although his batting average is only .229 through his first seven games with the Ports, he already has hit three homeruns and one double. He had the walk-off base-hit for Stockton in the bottom of the 18th inning in their home opener on Thursday. His OPS is currently 822.
Although a high-school pick like McKinney, A's 2012 top selection Addison Russell's assignment to Stockton last season wasn't a big surprise. Russell had a monster pro debut season and moved up three levels – from Rookie ball to Low-A Burlington. McKinney's pro debut was solid, but not spectacular, in large part because of a slow start with the A's Rookie League team.
McKinney admits that it took him a little while to adjust to professional baseball last season.
"In Arizona, I knew what to expect, but at first my body wasn't ready for it. It was a grind. It definitely was," McKinney said. "After a few weeks, I began to get my body settled and I learned what I needed to do to get ready for the year and play well."
Although McKinney spent just a week-and-a-half at the end of last year in the short-season New York-Penn League, he says that the time he spent with Vermont and during the A's fall Instructional League prepared him for the more advanced pitching he will be seeing during the California League season.
"I started to see better pitching in Vermont and during Instructs," McKinney said. "Those guys were spotting their pitches well. Better curveballs and just better off-speed pitches, as well. I learned that they threw certain pitches in certain counts and all of that."
McKinney got to experience high-level secondary pitches immediately when he appeared in big league spring games.
"In my first at-bat, [the pitcher] threw me a first pitch slider for a strike and I think he finished me off with another slider in the dirt. It was an impressive pitch," McKinney said.
"I learned an immense amount [in big league camp]. Just talking to all of the guys and learning from them. Talking to them about the game and how they go about the game and just watching their actions, too. Just watching what they do and how they do it. I definitely learned a lot about the big league life. Hopefully, I'll be there someday."
During spring training, McKinney received advice from Russell on tackling the California League.
"He said that pitching is really good and there are a lot of cutters and two-seamers that you'll see rather than the four-seamers that you see in the lower-levels like Arizona," McKinney said. "I'm going to get ready for that."
Although a very small sample size, the left-handed McKinney has thus far dominated right-handed pitching (.412/.444/1.000) and has struggled versus southpaws in roughly the same number of at-bats (.056/.190/.056). This split may not last long, however. McKinney actually hit better versus left-handed pitching last season than he did versus right-handers.
If the A's continue to move McKinney aggressively through the system, he could soon be on the same field during AL West showdowns as the player he grew up admiring.
"Josh Hamilton was a player I always got to see because the Rangers were always on," McKiney said. "I liked the way he went about his game and I loved his swing. I just want to try to stay healthy, though."