Jeff McNeil Seems Destined for “Ben Zobrist” Role

Jeff McNeil was a revelation for the New York Mets in 2018. After toiling in the minors for nearly six seasons, the 26-year-old infielder made his MLB debut on July 24; and he never looked back.

Over 248 plate appearances last season, McNeil slashed .329/.381/.471 with three homers, 11 doubles, six triples, and 19 runs batted in. Though he took just 14 bases-on-balls, the Nipomo, CA native struck out just 24 times — a contact hitter if there ever was one.

McNeil, a left-handed hitter, hit a staggering .345/.396/.470 in 186 plate appearances against right-handed pitching and a more than respectable .281/.339/.474 against lefties (62 plate appearances).

One would figure that once the rest of the league got a look at Jeff McNeil — which wouldn’t have been long considering the advancements in video scouting — he would eventually come back down to earth. Well, not so much.

His scorching hot August (.330/.373/.476) was followed up by an even hotter September (.340/.375/.472), and it almost seemed like as Jeff McNeil went, so did the New York Mets.

McNeil played in 37 Mets victories last season, hitting .412/.462/.574 in 152 plate appearances. In team losses, the 26-year-old hit just .202/.253/.315 in 89 at-bats. Is it a coincidence that the Mets virtually turned their season around after McNeil made his debut (37-28 from July 24 through the end of the season)? Maybe, maybe not.

But his ability to step seamlessly into the major leagues after the trade of Asdrubal Cabrera — and excel, at that — appeared to give a downtrodden team a punishing jab in the arm. That’s what Jeff McNeil brings to the table, apparently.

His .359 batting average on balls in play was absolutely remarkable, but there’s a decent possibility that pace might not be sustainable. In any case, as long as his patience and pitch selection skills get sharper, there’s undoubtedly a lot to look forward to in Jeff McNeil’s future.

In the field, McNeil showed range, consistency, and even, at times, a little panache. He put up respectable numbers in 460.2 innings at second (-2.0 defensive runs saved, 0.4 ultimate zone rating). Unfortunately, the Mets now need to find a spot in the field for the man his teammates call Squirrel.

After the team traded for All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano, naturally, McNeil lost his hold on the starting job at the keystone position in 2019. Third baseman Todd Frazier has one year left on his contract ($8.5 million) and figures — at this point — to start at the hot corner.

Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen joined team COO Jeff Wilpon and manager Mickey Callaway on Mike Francesca’s afternoon show on WFAN on Wednesday, and both Van Wagenen and Callaway alluded to the possibility that McNeil could see some time in the outfield in 2019.

Callaway also said he envisioned Jeff McNeil as a “Ben Zobrist type player”. That’s lofty, but realistic in this writer’s opinion. Judging by his performance in 2018 and the faith the Mets appear to have in him, at this moment in time the sky’s the limit.

If the organization likes what they see out of McNeil, it would certainly bode well for his playing time next season. The first infielder off the bench is a nice job to have as a still-wet-behind-the-ears ballplayer, but adding this wrinkle to his game couldn’t hurt either.

The Mets currently have four true outfielders on their 40-man roster; Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, Juan Lagares, and the injured Yoenis Cespedes. They’ve been linked to free agent center fielder A.J. Pollock, and even after the biggest fish in the pond, Bryce Harper, there are more than a few other enticing names out there.

Van Wagenen is sure to fill out his roster by the start of spring training in February and an outfielder (a right-handed hitting one, to be specific) will almost certainly be one of his additions.

But if Jeff McNeil shows that he can handle even emergency duties as a fifth outfielder, as well as his likely backup infielder role, it helps the New York Mets tremendously. Being able to insert McNeil’s bat into a variety of different positions is a luxury and extends Callaway’s bench considerably.

Clearly, Jeff McNeil has a place on this team no matter where they decide to play him. Having him on this roster makes the Mets a better team. The more positions he can man gives him that much more opportunity to play. It’s a win-win.

About Tim Ryder 367 Articles
A native of the South Shore of Long Island. Follow me on Twitter @TimothyRRyder