While the offseason additions of Robinson Cano and Jed Lowrie and the looming debut of Peter Alonso leave the Mets’ infield in pretty good shape heading into 2019, their presence has left some question about the role Jeff McNeil would serve this season. After a stellar rookie season in which he put up a 137 wRC+ and 2.7 fWAR in 63 games, it initially seemed likely that he would get the chance to continue to hold down the second base job he occupied at the end of 2018. But with the moves the Mets have made, there was reason to be concerned that he would be doomed to a bench role in spite of his success last year. Those concerns have been quelled in recent days with reports that the Mets are now planning on giving McNeil a chance to get significant playing time in the outfield, and Brodie Van Wagenen confirmed this strategy in an interview with Sports Final this past Monday.
In response to a question regarding the need to acquire additional outfield depth, Van Wagenen specifically highlighted McNeil as one of the reasons why the team was comfortable standing pat: “I think with Lagares and Broxton, and now Jeff McNeil moving to the outfield in a primary role, I think we’ve got five great outfielders that can give us a lot length to our lineup.” While comments made in offseason interviews such as these should not be considered guarantees of what will happen when the season rolls along, Van Wagenen’s unprompted categorization of McNeil as a “primary” outfielder would certainly seem to suggest that the organization is secure in its plan to at least give him the opportunity to attempt the position change.
Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo are currently penciled into the opening day lineup, but Juan Lagares and Keon Broxton are both questionable as everyday options, so the team’s desire to add another outfield option with offensive upside is understandable, and McNeil would certainly fit the bill. Elsewhere in the interview, Van Wagenen emphasized that “having versatility, having depth on your 25-man roster, and really on your 40-man roster, is the key to championships.” McNeil adding the ability to play the outfield to his repertoire would certainly assist in that department as well.
McNeil is not a complete stranger to the outfield, having played nine games there over the course of his minor league career, but the lion’s share of his playing time has been at second and third. There’s never any guarantee that an infielder will be able to make a smooth transition into the outfield—see Murphy, Daniel and Duda, Lucas—but after McNeil tore up the league in his limited time in the majors last season, Van Wagenen and the Mets have clearly decided that it is a risk worth taking, lest he be relegated to fighting for playing time in an already crowded infield. If he can prove himself to be an adequate defensive left fielder in spring training, it would go a long way towards improving the team’s overall positional versatility and shoring up one potential offensive weakness in their lineup.