There have been a lot of changes at third base in the National League East this winter. Thanks to this, the New York Mets may have the best in the division with Jeff McNeil at the hot corner.
With the recent departure of Todd Frazier to the Texas Rangers, it appears that the New York Mets will be heavily relying on Jeff McNeil as their third baseman in 2020. McNeil played a handful of games at third base last year as an occasional fill-in for Frazier. In his limited time at third, he continually flashed the leather and reinforced his ability to play multiple positions.
McNeil’s versatility meant that the Mets could fill their third base needs in-house this offseason, though of course their fans would have loved to find Anthony Rendon or Nolan Arenado under the Christmas tree in December. So with McNeil all but a lock for the Mets’ third base starting job, how does he compare with the rest of the NL East at the hot corner?
The Washington Nationals lost Rendon to the Los Angeles Angels this offseason, as their fans said goodbye to their clutch All-Star third baseman. Though there is no obvious candidate to replace his MVP-caliber numbers, the Nats did sign Starlin Castro to a two-year deal. He started 42 games at third base last year for the Miami Marlins, despite playing mostly shortstop throughout his career, so he could be an option for the Nats at third in 2020.
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There is also the faint possibility that Ryan Zimmerman could return to his old position of third base this year, having played there for most of his career. However, at age 35 and not having played 3rd base since 2014, it is unlikely that Zimmerman will be manning too many games at third for the Nats in 2020.
If age is a factor in the success of a 2020 third baseman, McNeil at age 27 certainly has the edge over both Castro and Zimmerman.
Meanwhile, down in Atlanta, the Braves are still looking for Josh Donaldson‘s replacement at third base. He manned third for the Braves in 2019 and put up very good numbers with 37 homers and 94 RBI, finishing just outside the top 10 in MVP voting.
This year, the Braves will likely have some combination of promising up-and-comers Austin Riley and Johan Carmargo in his place. While both have shown flashes of major league success, McNeil easily outplayed both on offense alone in 2019.
The Philadelphia Phillies are in an interesting spot with their third base situation. They non-tendered third baseman (and noted Mets-killer) Maikel Franco in December, who was later signed by the Kansas City Royals to a one-year, $3 million contract. Franco’s replacement next year will likely be Scott Kingery, another young infielder on the cusp of a breakout year in 2019.
However, his high strikeout rate in the second half kept him from truly reaching his potential as a hitter. With a remarkably low strikeout rate and high batting average, McNeil should have no trouble eclipsing Kingery in both of these categories in 2020.
Finally, let’s not forget about the Miami Marlins. They made a minor splash this offseason by signing Jonathan Villar, who played in all 162 games with the Orioles last year, to be one of their primary infielders in 2020. He could certainly see time at third base, though he exclusively played second base and shortstop last year. Brian Anderson, who came in 4th in 2018 Rookie of the Year voting, is also a likely candidate to start a lot of games for the Marlins at third base this season.
Even with these two quality third base candidates for the Marlins next year, McNeil still emerges as the strongest overall player. Villar, like many players across the MLB, was plagued by a high strikeout rate last year. Neither he nor Anderson has ever batted .300, a plateau that McNeil has easily exceeded in both of his big league seasons so far. In 2019, McNeil also finished in the top 10 in the NL in doubles, hit by pitches, OBP, and adjusted OPS+.
His defense also provided many memorable highlights, such as when he dove into the right field netting in a summer game against the White Sox and came up with a miraculous catch that cemented his “Flying Squirrel” status.
Based solely on offense, McNeil has a strong case to be considered the best third baseman in the NL East next year, and his defense promises to be a strength as well. That will all depend on how the corner infielders for his rivals perform, of course.
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But with Donaldson, Rendon, and Franco all gone to the American League, Mets fans should feel very good about their beloved Squirrel manning third in 2020.