It takes three hours to drive from Manhattan to Binghamton but I was able shave off seven minutes in my sweet, sweet ride. The snow was coming down hard, but not sticking, and was supposed to let up eventually. We were hopeful the scheduled one o'clock game could still be played. They banged it at eleven. Welcome to scouting.
The issue now is that he isn't able to drive the ball due to his lack of strength, and unless that changes without hurting his defensive profile, it's a platoon utility guy ceiling. —Top 25 Mets Prospects for 2016
Jeff McNeil was drafted in the 12th round of the 2013 draft and you should definitely click through to Alex Nelson's scouting report from then for the report and also for the picture. That is one skinny dude. It's amazing how little the profile has changed over the years since the report. McNeil is a light-hitting, utility-type player whose best position is second base. As Alex wrote:
Because of his positional versatility and total lack of juice in his bat, I see him as more of a utility player prospect whose best position is second base.
The story remained the same in 2014. Some choice quotes from Jeff Paternostro:
McNeil showed very good bat head control...and a bit of pull side power as well. The swing is smooth and direct to the ball...His main issue right now is bringing that BP swing into games consistently.
Regarding his optimistic projection:
McNeil hits .270 with some walks, plays a little bit here, a little bit there, some second, short, third, outfield, and can cover for a few weeks if a guy goes on the DL. Useful super-utility type.
What happens to these kinds of projections if he puts on about 25 pounds of good weight and some power starts showing up in his game?
With the game canceled, we spent the rest of our day taking in the city and drinking Drambuie while watching Carlos Beltran hit dingers, and were back out at the stadium bright and early the next morning hoping to catch batting practice. The sun was shining and, despite 35-degree temperatures, it felt quite pleasant. They set up the batting cage and the protective nets. The visiting team came out on the field to stretch and warm up. It all made sense. Except the B-Mets' dugout wasn't stirring, and as time passed we came to the realization that BP wasn't happening today. Sigh. Welcome to scouting, indeed.
The headline player on the B-Mets' roster this year is former first-round pick, Dominic Smith. But among position players, McNeil was equally intriguing to me given the reported change in his physique. I've liked his swing in the past and his bat-to-ball ability has been well above average throughout his career. So it was exciting to see in person that McNeil really has filled out his frame. I wouldn't say he's physically maxed out but he has a solid, strong build now. He fills out his uniform.
The next pleasant surprise came at the plate. After working the count full in his second at-bat facing a lefty, McNeil turned on a fastball. It popped off the bat and both the pitcher and I thought it was gone. Of course, it's Binghamton in April so it died at the track, but the amount of pop was eye-opening. I was extremely impressed, but sitting behind home plate you want to keep up appearances and act unphased, lest you out yourself as the fraud you feel like you are. So, coolly, I turn to Jeff Paternostro with a look I hoped conveyed, "YOWZA?!" and my message was received because he replied, "That ball JUMPED." We were on the same page.
The concept of a ball "jumping" off a bat is something I've heard scouts throw around but what does it mean, exactly? You know it when you see it is one way to describe it, which is to say the majority of contact at this level is nothing special. It's about making quality contact but also about getting loft and carry, which translates to backspin. There's been discussion about whether or not creating backspin is a skill, but regardless it helps the ball stay in the air longer and leads to more home runs when the ball is launched at the right angle. McNeil's fly out had lots of backspin.
McNeil also has an idea at the plate. He's able to lay off pitches out of the zone and foul off tough pitches when he needs to. It's not the most patient profile but his contact ability is legit. In another at-bat later in the game, McNeil broke his bat but was able to muscle the pitch to center field for a single. It takes real strength to do that.
Defensively, McNeil played second base and was capable of making all the plays. He backed up nicely on a sharp two-hopper hit directly at him and on another ball was able to range to his left, spin, and start a double play. He also turned a double play at second, and the arm seemed average. He didn't have to sprint down the line much so I didn't get to see his speed, but his first-step quickness seemed to be solid.
It was just one game, so the only firm conclusion I came away with was that, yes, you can get sunburned on a mostly cloudy 35-degree day in Binghamton, New York. But on the heals of his opening night home run and this viewing, the conversation about McNeil is starting to shift. You can see the previous projections above. If we add 40ish power into the mix, it make those projections more attainable and might raise the ceiling to a second-division starter.
Other notes from Binghamton
We had it confirmed to us that Robert Gsellman's touching 98 MPH on opening night was a legitimate reading. This is an exciting development and will certainly be worth monitoring throughout the year. It was already a back-end-starter profile but this kind of velocity bump could, like McNeil, change the conversation around Gsellman.
Dom Smith was in the lineup for the game I saw but was unimpressive. It was only a few at-bats, so no conclusions to be drawn, but he was swinging through fat 89 MPH fastballs. I would like to tell you that the ball jumps off his bat, but he swung four or five times and missed on all but one, a lazy curve he was able to pull through the infield for a single. He also was none too pleased with a strike-three call from the home plate ump. In the field, he looked smooth around the bag with the only misplay being a ball to his right that he dove for but had it bounce off his glove. It's still early, and it is damn cold up there, but Smith will have to do more to get me excited about him.