Back in the last century the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield was known for his tag line “ I don’t get no respect.” After the off-season that Mets infielder Jeff McNeil has endured, it would be no surprise if he felt the same way.
McNeil, a rookie last year, was the Met second baseman for the latter part of the season and he responded with terrific numbers. In 63 games he slashed .329/.381/.471. Then in early November new GM Brodie Van Wagenen was quoted by Anthony DiComo as saying McNeil was “penciled in to start at 2b” in the coming season. So far, so good for McNeil.
However, within a few weeks that same Van Wagenen had swung a major deal that brought in veteran second baseman Robinson Cano from Seattle. Suddenly McNeil’s spot no longer seemed so secure, and his name was bandied about for awhile as a potential piece for the Mets to trade away.
McNeill fell even further down the totem pole in December. Manager Mickey Callaway said that Cano was slated to start at 2b in 2019, that “as we stand here, Todd Frazier will be starting at third base,” and Callaway then indicated McNeil would be the primary backup at the four infield positions.
Cano had a pretty good slash line of .303/.374/.471 in 80 games in 2018, a little behind McNeil’s production. As for Frazier, his output in 2018 was a dismal .213/.303/.390 in 115 games. Callaway could have said there would be competition for the starting infield slots in spring training, instead he chose to anoint the two veterans (and ex-Van Wagenen clients) as the presumed starters.
The now departed Jose Reyes filled the role of utility infielder for the Mets in 2018, and he accumulated 251 PA. Last year McNeil, who joined the team in July and became the starting 2b at the end of the month, had almost as many PA (248) as Reyes did over the whole season. So, assuming those figures are a rough guide as to the playing time of utility infielders on the Mets, McNeil is going to get a lot less PA in 2019 than he would have as starting infielder.
McNeil does not project to be a slugger, but he is a contact hitter who hits to all fields, with roughly 35% of his balls hit pulled, also 35% to center, and 29% to the opposite field. He had a decent line drive rate of 21.6%. He does not strike out much with a 9.7% K rate. The left-handed McNeil was not overmatched by lefty pitchers in 2018, he batted .281 against them. Versus right-handers he hit even better at .345.
He did not have a reputation as a great defender at 2b in the minors, but he flashed some good glove work with the Mets, FanGraphs had him at a positive UZR figure of 0.7 in his abbreviated season. McNeil provides some speed on the basepaths, a quality lacking on recent Mets teams. He stole seven bases in his 63 games played in 2018, and was caught stealing just once. McNeil hustles running out balls, something Cano apparently is not as dedicated to.
Nobody would say McNeil deserves to be treated like a perennial All-Star, but he should get more respect than to be demoted to utility infielder without much of a chance to compete for a starting berth.