The Mets have had a predicament for the last few years in which the team has struggled to find a legitimate, every day true center fielder.
They have tried multiple avenues to address this issue with Yoenis Cespedes, Michael Conforto, Curtis Granderson, and Brandon Nimmo all having spent significant chunks of time there with Juan Lagares often on the disabled list.
As of now, if the team were to make no other moves, Lagares would be slated to man the position every day in 2019.
However, with his lengthy injury history, it probably wouldn’t be smart to bank on him as an everyday option, which is why the team has reportedly been looking to add a center fielder.
The free agent market, though, is not really a great place to find a center fielder right now as A.J. Pollock is the only true one on the open market that is of significant note, with contract demands reportedly in the five-year, $80 million range.
Another option for the team would be to sign another outfielder such as Nick Markakis or dare I say Bryce Harper and move Brandon Nimmo or Michael Conforto to center field, with the former being the more likely of the two to patrol the middle of the outfield.
There is another internal option that really deserves some consideration. Jeff McNeil could simply slide into center field.
So, this is the part of the article where everyone might tune me out and think I am crazy after seeing the debacle that was the Daniel Murphy outfield experiment and Lucas Duda‘s miserable attempt as well.
Hear me out, though.
There are actually a lot of former middle infielders that now roam center field with regularity and are actually top-notch at the position. You don’t even have to look any further than the Mets roster to find the first one on the list in Juan Lagares, who actually was a shortstop before moving to the position.
Next, we will move to the 2018 AL MVP, Mookie Betts, who played second base and shortstop in the minors outside of one game in the outfield. While he plays right field mostly, and a very good one at that (87 DRS in five years), he also has played center field.
Not only has he played the position, but in 1,517 2/3 innings he has accumulated 11 DRS and had a 4.0 UZR. The only reason he no longer plays the position regularly is because of the fact that the team has Jackie Bradley Jr., who happens to be one of the best defensive outfielders in the game.
Another great example of success is Billy Hamilton who played second base and shortstop in the minors as well outside of, strangely, one game as well.
Hamilton, 28, also is phenomenal in center field as he has accumulated 51 DRS and a 45.5 UZR in 5,576 innings manning center field.
So with three positive examples in the league, there stands reason to believe a switch could work despite an example like Dee Gordon that did not work out in 2018 (-8 DRS). Keep in mind, though, that his numbers were accumulated at Safeco Field, which is one of the more spacious outfields in baseball.
One thing that has to be considered when actually deciding if an experiment like this could work is if McNeil is fast enough to cover that much ground. Well, his six triples and seven stolen bases in 63 games would suggest he would be able to handle the position just fine. Over the course of a full 162 game season that would have had him at around 15 triples and 17 stolen bases on the year.
Some of you may be wondering why on earth I would want him to play center field specifically when he hasn’t played the outfield at all while Nimmo and Conforto have both patrolled center in the past.
Well, there are two reasons for that. One is that Nimmo (-5 DRS, -4 UZR in 434 2/3 innings) and Conforto (-11 DRS, -2.4 UZR in 869 1/3 innings) are simply not good at the position.
The other is that they are roughly league average on the corners as Nimmo had one defensive run saved in left field in 2018 while Conforto had the same on both corner spots this past season.
Terry Collins once talked about a lesson he learned from Jim Leyland, in which he essentially said that you only make one guy adjust at a time, that way it doesn’t upset the whole dynamic if changes are needed.
Well, by putting Jeff McNeil in center field the team would avoid moving two other players out of position in the process. That would also allow for Lagares to become a natural late-game replacement or play center against a tough left-hander.
McNeil’s bat is definitely worth getting into the lineup as he hit .329/.381/.471 with 11 doubles, three home runs, 19 RBI, and 35 runs scored to give himself a 137 wRC+ and 2.7 WAR.
Given the team’s acquisition of Robinson Cano, though, they are only set to use him in a super-utility role right now.
Moving McNeil into center field would allow the team to focus on acquiring depth in other areas such as the bullpen and the starting rotation, where they arguably need more of it than they do the lineup at this point.
While this could end up poorly like Murphy’s and Duda’s experiment, there is just as much of a chance that he could end up as successful as Lagares or Hamilton.
In Spring Training, the McNeil could shadow Lagares and work with him to learn how to man the position properly so he could be ready to handle the job come Opening Day. Who better to learn from than someone who actually made the switch?
This theory is out there for sure, but it might very well be worth exploring.