Since his call up in the 2017 season, Jeff McNeil has quickly made his mark on the New York Mets. Even as he has garnered headlinesnfor his strong hitting, knobless bat and defensive adventures around the diamond, it almost feels like he still is one of the more underrated players in the game.
In only 248 games played, McNeil has accumulated 9.2 bWAR, tied with Todd Hundley for 33rd all-time in Mets history. He is ahead of such names as Lucas Duda, Ron Hunt and Rusty Staub. His .319/.383/.501 career batting line is good for a 139 wRC+. He has been excellent, and one of the real bright spots on two Mets teams that have disappointed. There are no more questions if McNeil is the real deal.
Assuming an on-time start to the 2021 season, McNeil willmstill be only 28 on Opening Day, and won’t be eligible for free agency until 2025. He’s a high-end lefty hitter in his prime making a pre-arbitration salary who can passably play defense at three positions. Players like McNeil are not only on championship teams, but are the reason championship teams are championship teams.
It is obvious that McNeil fits in with the Mets moving forward, especially with the pending sale to Steve Cohen promising changes in how the team will try to compete. The question is how and where does he fit in?
McNeil’s primary defensive position for the past two years has been left field, but it’s hard to imagine keeping him there being the best thing for the team. That’s not necessarily a knock on his abilities, but rather more that left needs to be Brandon Nimmo’s home. With how Dominic Smith hit in 2020, it’s hard to imagine him not being penciled in as the DH in 2021, assuming that change is made permanent.
Even with Steve Cohen’s deep pockets, it’s hard to see the Mets benching Robinson Cano in favor of McNeil in 2021. That is especially true since Cano just put up his best offensive season since 2014 and is going to be chasing down 3,000 hits. As long as he can still be serviceable with the glove and he hits his weight, I don’t see Cano losing his starting role next year.
For the immediate future, third base seems to be the best choice for McNeil. He has shown the ability to handle the position defensively and has a bat which plays at third. J.D. Davis’ disappointing season in 2020 perfectly opens the door for a change, and outside of a 36-year-old Justin Turner there aren’t any intriguing names in free agency. That is unless the Mets go big and sign DJ LeMahieu and move him to the hot corner.
So, there it is, problem solved. McNeil is your everyday third baseman. But of course, it’s not that simple.
For the past several years, the Mets utter lack of pitching depth has come back to bite them. There are very good pitchers available both as starters and relievers as free agents this season. But if the Mets want to bring in a pitcher or two with a trade, it might be worth considering parting with McNeil.
Obviously, the Mets should not be in a rush to trade McNeil and should try to avoid doing so. But the very things that make him such a valuable player, make him an attractive trade piece. If a team wants to dump salary but bring in a low-salaried MLB player, it could be a solid match.
With Andres Gimenez, Amed Rosario and J.D. Davis all in the picture for 2021, the Mets have options at third base, even if they are less attractive than McNeil. If the Mets have the opportunity to trade from a strength to fill a weakness, it would be reckless to not at least consider it.
The same stands if the Mets decide to go the other way for 2021 and build up a minor league system that has been gutted by Brodie Van Wagenen in pursuit of a playoff berth. McNeil is the type of player who could expedite that process and bring back two or three top 15 prospects. Being under team control until 2025 could help the Mets in dealing from a position of strength.
The hope is that a Cohen ownership with Sandy Alderson back in the picture would realize keeping McNeil is a smart idea, and that making the playoffs in 2021 is attainable. Since it was Alderson who drafted him back in 2013, that might help his case to stay put.
McNeil is a good and valuable player. But of all the Mets good hitter, he is the one they could most survive parting with and come out a stronger team on the other side of the deal. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Mets to test those waters.
Joe Vasile is a play-by-play broadcaster for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders and Bucknell University. He hosts the baseball documentary podcast, Secondary Lead.