Mets jack-of-all trades Jeff McNeil is the super Band-Aid they need
By Tim Boyle
Through his willingness and capability of playing all over the field, Jeff McNeil is able to save the New York Mets from beginning the year with a major hole at third base in 2019.
Before Jeff McNeil made his major league debut for the New York Mets last year, we heard from Mickey Callaway that they thought of him exclusively as a second baseman. This quote came as a result of why the Mets had not promoted him to the big leagues when he was clearly ready for the show. The Mets waited until they traded Asdrubal Cabrera to promote McNeil, setting up for two fantastic MLB months for one of the best baseball stories out of Flushing in 2018.
Hopeful McNeil would contribute in a new way this year, the Mets decided to blow up Callaway’s quote about him last summer. He’s no longer a second baseman. In fact, we may not see him there for more than a few games thanks to the presence of Robinson Cano. McNeil is now a utility man who has already saved this organization from entering the year with a major question mark.
Neither Todd Frazier nor Jed Lowrie will be ready for Opening Day. The debate over who should start at third base has been answered: it’s McNeil.
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McNeil was thought to be the starting left fielder for 2019, but early Spring Training injuries have changed this. Rather than continue learning left field full-time, he’ll shift back to the infield and likely set up what will be a starting gig at the hot corner until Frazier and/or Lowrie return.
All but 16 of McNeil’s big league games have taken place as a second baseman. However, in parts of six seasons in the minor leagues, McNeil started 122 games at third base. It’s a position he knows well and should handle well for any period of time.
We saw McNeil give the Mets replacement-level defense last year in his 54 games at second base. His range was slightly below-average, but the small sample only offers a preview of the possibilities. McNeil probably won’t become a Gold Glove winner. He can, however, play above-average at multiple spots all over the diamond and into the outfield. This is all anyone can ask from him.
This team could survive without McNeil, but they look a lot sweeter with him on the roster. As the third baseman, it allows them to put defensively-gifted Keon Broxton or Juan Lagares in center field and keep Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo in the corners. When McNeil shifts back to left field where we expect him to play most of the year, the offense improves. He’s not a glove-first bench player who can take the field at any position. He’s a true hitter willing and able to slot in just about anywhere needed.
I can’t imagine the 2019 Mets without McNeil. Although overlooked by the strength of the pitching and the guys with more stable positions, McNeil is key to their success.
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The Mets added a lot of depth this winter. By adding depth to his own abilities, he’s more valuable to a team who could use a little more flexibility in its options.