The New York Mets have a utility knife in Jeff McNeil, and they should use him as such when creating their 2020 roster.
New York Mets fans are well aware of how good Jeff McNeil is at his profession. He hit .318 with a .384 OBP while playing good defense at four positions. Yes, you read that right. Four different positions. He can do it all for the team, and it’s a trait the new manager (perhaps Joe Girardi) should take advantage of.
The team essentially has four options with McNeil. They can play him every day at second, every day at third, every day in a corner spot, or every day in a rotation position role ala Marwin Gonzalez with the Houston Astros. But which option will work best for New York?
Let’s dive in and count them down.
4: Every Day In The Outfield
There’s not really a bad option with McNeil, but this would be the least efficient use of resources. The team has Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo penciled in at outfield positions. The outfield is the most realistic path to playing time for both Dom Smith and J.D. Davis as well.
Yoenis Cespedes could also make a return (although there shouldn’t be any expectations from him given his injuries and the long layoff). There’s also the possibility that the team could be in the market for an actual center fielder. This would move Nimmo back to a corner position that he’s better suited for.
McNeil is a fine outfielder, but the outfield is already crowded, and just penciling McNeil in as the everyday left fielder will block some very good players from a chance to crack the lineup. It would also hamstring the Mets if they choose to get a centerfielder. That would mean fewer at-bats for Nimmo or Conforto, both of whom should be in the lineup.
3: Every Day Third Baseman
McNeil saw his fewest number of games at third base this season, playing there only 31 times. However, he was strong defensively there and is likely to be the opening day third baseman next season with Todd Frazier‘s contract expiring this Winter.
However, penciling McNeil in at third guarantees the team won’t be in on Anthony Rendon, who would immensely lengthen the Mets lineup. How likely they are to be in on him anyway is certainly a fair question. But, taking yourself out of contention before even considering it isn’t usually a good decision.
Additionally, the team might be able to slot Davis in at third. He’s a natural third baseman, and although he wasn’t good there defensively this season, he has now established himself as a hitter who can compete against major league pitchers. That new confidence will allow him more time to work on his defense this Winter. He won’t need to completely break his swing down as he did in years past.
Jed Lowrie could also factor in at third if he has a strong Spring.
However, this is the third-best option for McNeil more because of the two choices ahead of it than anything.
2: Every Day Second Baseman
This is probably the least likely of the four scenarios to happen, given the amount of money the Mets are giving Robinson Canó to be their second baseman. That being said, Canó turns 37 at the end of October and struggled to a .256/.307/.428 slash line this year. It was the worst average and on-base percentage of his career.
Canó might be best suited for a part-time role at this point. The problem is that he doesn’t really have the versatility that you need to be a backup player. On top of that, he’s under contract for another four years and $94 million. The team isn’t going to eat all that money, nor will they pay him to be a backup. Additionally, it’s very unlikely they will be able to dump his salary without giving up an important piece of their team.
Fans are going to be stuck hoping that Canó’s planned offseason durability work helps him return to some semblance of the form that he played with before New York acquired him.
1: Every Day Utility Player
Look, the Mets have a guy who can do it all on the field. He can play all over the diamond, be an effective piece defensively, and flat out hit. He’s shown he can stay hot with the bat while playing a different position every day, which is a rare trait. Why limit the guy to one position or role?
It would stand to reason that he’d see most of his time in the outfield anyway, but why put him there every day? If he plays an average of six games a week, two of them can come in the outfield, two at third base, and two at second base.
It would limit Davis and Smith’s playing time a little bit, but they might have a limit on their time if Cespedes comes back anyway. It gets Canó out of the lineup twice a week as well. The frequent rest for Canó might help him at his age.
Using McNeil as a utility player would also let Lowrie play sporadically (he’s turning 36 in April) and you can work him in at shortstop to get Amed Rosario a bit of rest.
Smart teams take advantage of players who can play multiple positions (the Astros with Gonzalez, the Los Angeles Dodgers with Max Muncy, the New York Yankees with DJ LeMahieu, to name a few).
The Mets have the talent to be a playoff team. The next step is optimizing that talent in the best way. That means taking advantage of McNeil’s versatility.