Mets sources have been saying since December's Winter Meetings that Jeff McNeil will get time this spring playing second base, third base, outfield and possibly some first base.
These statements were hinted at before Jed Lowrie was inked to a two-year deal, so they are probably even more true today than eight weeks ago.
McNeil was awesome last season, albeit in a small sample size. The thing is, the guy has always hit regardless of the level of competition. And, since being forced to change his swing after suffering an injury two years ago, he's developed extra base pop that no longer can be viewed as a fluke.
In 248 big-league plate appearances last season, he hit .329 with a .381 OBP, 14 extra base hits, and struck out in fewer than 10 percent of his at-bats. His 2.7 WAR was sixth among all NL second basemen, which he produced in fewer than half the at-bats compiled by the players ahead of him.
Nevertheless, FanGraphs projects he'll produce just 1.0 WAR this coming season during the same number of at bats as he had in 2018. This makes no sense to me. However, the Mets have a new front office that is evaluating and predicting performance differently than the previous management. So, it's possible the new guys are more in line with how McNeil's prior analytics are being interpreted by FanGraphs and other sites and projection systems.
To that, I say, "I don't care."
I know what I see, which is a 26-year-old, left-handed hitting, smart, focused baseball player that hits the ball hard and often, rarely strikes out and lives to compete and prove people wrong. In this sense, he is very reminiscent of Daniel Murphy, who, after a similar number of career at-bats, had his breakout season at the same age McNeil is now. Also like McNeil, Murphy was dismissed as someone likely to be exposed if given regular playing time so (at best) he would never be more than a utility guy.
The point is, while one guy isn't technically the other, their stories are similar and a lesson to be considered when debating a guy's potential and path forward.
That said, "Baseball is littered with guys that look great their first 200-300 at-bats, then the league adjusts and the guy falls back to Earth," a veteran NL scout told me late last year when talking to me about McNeil. "Sure, 'he's always hit,' I get it, but he also played the low-level minor leagues at an advanced age, so I don't think it's smart to use that cliche."
Again, with respect to scouts and stats, I know what I see and it's hard for me to ignore it.
However, with eight other guys on the 40-man roster that can play infield (nine if you count Peter Alonso and 10 once you factor in Lowrie), it's understandable that the Mets would be considering shoe-horning McNeil's bat in to the lineup by way of the outfield. The 40-man roster includes just four outfielders, two of which (Juan Lagares and Keon Broxton) provide very little assurance of health and consistent hitting.
Unfortunately, I worry that if he's asked to be a fill-in (let alone starting) corner outfielder, the mental adjustment to dealing with a new position (in Citi Field no less) will negatively impact McNeil's ability to hit. We've seen it happen over and over again, including to Murphy when also shoved in to the outfield.
To be fair, McNeil played outfield during college. However, he has played the outfield in just eight of his 509 professional games since college.
On the other hand, while playing infield last season, he looked swift and sound on routine plays and came up with an unlikely ball or two on multiple occasions. He's not a Gold Glove winner, but I bet he'll be a safer solution in the field than Robinson Cano at second base or Todd Frazier at third.
My hunch is Lowrie will start at third base and push Frazier to the bench. Similarly, I see Cano playing more first base to start the season, with Alonso beginning the year in Triple-A. If this happens, McNeil is clear to return to second base, where he can be given time to prove whether last season was a mirage or the beginning of a Murphy-like run of hitting doubles and getting adoration from fans.
If McNeil stumbles or "returns to earth" as the scout said, he can only hope it coincides with the promotion of Alonso and Cano moving back to his home 45 feet to his right. In that case, McNeil either hits the bench as the utility infielder-outfielder that people expect him to be. Or, worse, he'll go back to Triple A.
McNeil is a fighter, though. It's in his DNA. He plays with a chip on his shoulder, he believes in his ability and -- because of it -- he's endearing himself to Mets fans. My hope is that he blows by the haters on his way down the path Murphy carved out for him a few years ago. He took step one last season. His step two starts roughly one month from now in Port St. Lucie.
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!