Before we get into this, let me be clear — I’d much rather have infielder Jeff McNeil on the New York Mets instead of somewhere else. It’s a lot of fun to watch his “freakish” contact skills at work, and his approach at the plate is needed in today’s game, where players are striking out more than ever.
However, based on what we’ve heard and seen from general manager Brodie Van Wagenen thus far during his short tenure, it’s that he’s not afraid of making an unpopular move if he thinks it’ll help the team win. He also clearly stated during the press conference that introduced Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz last week that New York has had to depend on too many “if” situations in recent years.
In essence, this squad needs more depth with proven big-league performers.
Despite McNeil’s rather impressive rookie showing last season (.329/.381/.471 triple slash with a 137 wRC+, 9.7% strikeout rate and 2.7 fWAR in 248 plate appearances), it didn’t stop the Mets from ultimately acquiring Cano. With his anticipated daily presence at the keystone for (at the very least) 2019, the 26-year-old is pushed into more of a super-utility role, similar to the one Ben Zobrist has had throughout his own career.
Nobody on the Mets’ active roster appears to have a skill set like this, which makes McNeil valuable to the club. Yet again, that hasn’t stopped New York from inspecting other utility/depth options, such as showing interest in free-agent Marwin Gonzalez.
It looks as if there is significant interest in Gonzalez around the league because of his versatility on the field and ability at the plate. But since he’s a client of agent Scott Boras, it’ll be hard to acquire a player like this without making a significant financial commitment, both in years and dollars.
This widespread intrigue may also eventually take the Mets out of the running for “Swiss G”, as Boras nicknamed him at the start of winter, which is something that appears to be happening despite the organization’s pursuit of outfielder A.J. Pollock.
As much as it sounds like the Mets want to use McNeil in this super-utility role, the rumors make me think they’re not as comfortable with doing this as they might be saying publicly. While his numbers in the upper minors and the majors have been impressive, it’s still not a large enough sample size to be completely comfortable with him moving from position to position in the big leagues.
Employing McNeil in this way would invoke another one of those “if” statements, hoping he won’t regress too much at the plate over a full season’s worth of plate appearances. It’s also worth noting that we don’t know how he’ll handle playing multiple positions, or how that will impact his offensive production on a daily basis.
Heading into the season with McNeil taking on this responsibility would be just fine, but I’d imagine BVW would rather have a more proven big-league performer playing multiple positions, like Gonzalez.
He didn’t exactly follow up his breakout 2017 season with another one from start to finish with the Houston Astros this past year, but Gonzalez’s campaign should be looked at in two halves. The below table compares his 2017 performance to 2018 with that in mind.
|First Half 2018||335||.660||.125||84||18.0%||34.2%|
|Second Half 2018||217||.844||.218||134||16.2%||44.6%|
Gonzalez’s performance following the All-Star break was much more in line with the kind of hitter he was the year before, which should only benefit him during this trip into free agency. His process en route to these results was sound, too — the switch hitter didn’t see a huge rise in BABIP (.292 to .314) or a drastic change in his batted-ball profile. What did change was his swing rate on strikes (57.3% to 64.2%), which led to increased contact in this situation (84.9% to 88.2%).
And with the glove, he saw time at every position on the diamond last year outside of pitcher and catcher. Most of that versatility was significant, as he played at least 100 innings at first base, second base, shortstop, and left field.
At the start of the winter, I thought pursuing a player like Gonzalez would’ve been perfect because of all the things he could provide. Of course, that was before McNeil was supplanted from second base by Cano.
If the Mets were to land Gonzalez, could he and McNeil co-exist on the roster? Well, sure — not only would it increasingly help New York’s depth, it’d give the Mets a temporary outfield solution while waiting for Yoenis Cespedes to return (Gonzalez), along with a roving infielder that could conceivably play multiple spots (McNeil). However, there would eventually be a bit of role redundancy going on here.
We know McNeil was part of the trade package heading back to the Seattle Mariners at one point, so the willingness to trade him is there. If Van Wagenen can acquire a versatile player with a longer track record, then this is the only kind of scenario I can imagine where McNeil could get flipped in a trade to fill another hole on the Mets’ roster.