John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The beauty of Jeff McNeil is that he is as versatile defensively as he is wizard-like offensively, and with a huge series against the Cubs this week the Mets need to get creative in how they use him to help kick-start a suddenly sluggish offense.
For starters that means getting more left-handed hitters in the lineup against Yu Darvish in Tuesday's series opener, since the Cubs' righthander has been significantly more vulnerable to lefties than righties this season.
The most logical move is playing McNeil at third base, allowing Joe Panik to stay at 2B, and sitting the slumping Todd Frazier.
Yet there are other ways to do it, as McNeil has proven capable of playing left field, right field, third base and second base, looking remarkably at home at any of the four positions.
Big picture, that also raises the question of what the Mets should do with McNeil next season and beyond. Considering that he may win the National League batting title, McNeil deserves to have a set position, but in truth he's probably more valuable to the Mets if he takes on a Ben Zobrist-like role next season, moving around the diamond.
Don't forget, Yoenis Cespedes is still under contract, and figures to finally be ready to play again by next season, assuming he doesn't step in any more holes at his ranch in Florida. For $29.5 million next season he'll get the opportunity to prove he can still play left field.
Same goes for Jed Lowrie, who is finally in rehab games after needing all season to heal from various leg injuries. For $10 million next season he'll probably get the chance to prove he deserves the job as everyday third baseman.
And Robinson Cano isn't going anywhere, with four years remaining on his contract at $24 million a year, so second base will be mostly off-limits as well.
If by some miracle they all stay relatively healthy next season, and Michael Conforto is still in right field, the Mets will have to do some juggling to ensure that McNeil gets his at-bats.
Obviously they'll do whatever it takes, and Zobrist is proof of the value such maneuvering can have on a championship team, having played multiple positions for the 2015 Royals and the 2016 Cubs while playing a key role offensively as well.
As it is, McNeil this season has made 36 starts in left field, 35 in right, 20 at second base, and six at third base, seemingly embracing the challenge of moving around so much while hitting ropes wherever he plays.
Now, for a team that needs more left-handed presence in the lineup, especially with Dominic Smith out, the recent addition of Panik seems to make McNeil most valuable at third, at least against right-handed pitching.
Frazier, after all, is hitting just .165 in August, and for the season he's hitting .210 against right-handed pitching.
Meanwhile, the Mets desperately need to win two out of three from the Cubs, who currently hold a two-game lead for the second wild card spot but are just 25-39 on the road this season.
As such, the urgency practically begs for Mickey Callaway to try and force the action offensively.
The other option would be to play McNeil in left field, but obviously J.D. Davis has swung a much more potent bat than Frazier over the last several weeks, hitting .320 in August with a .950 OPS. And he has hit .298 against righthanders this season.
All of this matters against Darvish, who mostly has dominated right-handed hitters this season, holding them to a .178 batting average and a .618 OPS. Meanwhile, lefties have hit .254 against him with significantly more power and an .825 OPS.
Thus the need to load the lineup with lefth-anded hitters. Callaway could even take it to the extreme and play Luis Guillorme at third base and McNeil in right field, thereby moving Conforto to center in place of Juan Lagares.
But I wouldn't mess with Lagares at the moment, as he has looked good at the plate since playing regularly during McNeil's time on the injured list, while re-discovering his Gold Glove form in center field as well.
If Lagares cools off, then lefty-hitting Brandon Nimmo could be an option in center, as he is seemingly close to making it back from a long stint on the IL with a neck injury.
For now, though, the numbers all point to McNeil playing third, at least against Darvish's power stuff. Another right-hander, Kyle Hendricks, will pitch the second game of the series, but he's more of a finesse pitcher who relies on his off-speed stuff, so the Mets probably would adjust the lineup depending how they do in the first game.
And then lefty Jon Lester starts the third game, which likely means moving McNeil to second and sitting Panik, who is 1-for-9 lifetime against the Cubs' veteran. Frazier would return to third, though he's only 2-for-11 against Lester.
Above all, the Mets need a win Tuesday to re-establish their second-half vibe after getting swept by the Braves, as well as set a tone for the Cubs series.
That could very well start with the decision on where to play McNeil.