Before 2021, it would’ve been crazy to suggest that Jeff McNeil could soon be off the Mets’ roster. A fan favorite after bursting onto the scene as a relatively unheralded prospect, the most remarkable part of McNeil’s year was a dugout altercation with Francisco Lindor. Meanwhile, he had the worst offensive season of his career, lost his job to a midseason trade acquisition, and now finds himself with an oddly tenuous spot on the Met roster as we wait for the lockout to end.
After posting a wRC+ over 130 in each of his first three seasons, McNeil posted a below average 93 mark over 426 PA in 2021. Baseball Prospectus’s metrics judged him similarly, though they were generally less high on his work with the bat in the first place (in large part due to his lack of over-the-fence power). After debuting as an unheralded prospect and almost immediately becoming a 4-5 win player, McNeil’s down year made him look more like a 0-1.5 win contributor - essentially the gap between an All Star and a replacement level bench bat.
Concerns about McNeil’s offensive output extend beyond his surface level numbers. His ground ball rate climbed for the third straight season - not an egregious mark, but higher than you want in the modern game. At the same time, McNeil also hit more pop-ups and made more soft contact overall. Combine all that and you get a xwOBA of .315 and an xwOBACON of .325, both career worst marks. Moreover, there’s some thought that hitters like McNeil who swing a lot and rely on their contact skills to carry them have harsher age curves, though there’s little in the way of rigorous research following up on that idea. The bigger concern is that the power McNeil developed late in his minor league career and displayed during his first three seasons totally dried up, evidenced by his .109 ISO.
That said, an optimist might look at McNeil’s 2021 differently. He’s consistently outperformed his expected metrics based on his quality of contact (by .035 on average over 2018-2020) but underperformed by 15 points in 2021. This same trend appears in his BABIP; career .324 mark and above .330 in every prior season, but .280 in 2021. As for any concern about his contact profile aging poorly, McNeil didn’t actually lose anything in that department, arguably improving given his reduced O-Swing%. His struggles could be chalked up to some bad luck, a balky hamstring, and a somewhat inconsistent role in the second half of the season.
That’s a lot of ink spilled about McNeil’s 2021 in a season preview, so what do we make of this information going forward? The Mets’ have at times seemed to determined to trade McNeil, possibly because they’ve soured on him as a player, possibly because of clubhouse issues. For the moment, however, McNeil remains penciled in as a starter at second or third base, wherever free agent addition Eduardo Escobar isn’t standing.
Frankly, neither of those options - traded off the roster or certain starter - are ideal. There’s a reason McNeil earned the nickname “6” (referencing the 20-80 scale used by scouts) prior to his debut, and trading a 29-year-old, borderline All Star who isn’t a free agent until 2025 at the nadir of his value is disastrous asset management. On the other hand, a team intent on being in the conversation as the best team in baseball shouldn’t be handing a starting spot to a player who comes with a fair amount of uncertainty.
In an optimal world, the Mets could make another addition on the infield, pushing Dominic Smith and/or J.D. Davis off the roster and moving McNeil into more of a super-utility role. The Mets’ roster is still lacking quality depth, a pressing issue given the injury histories of Brandon Nimmo, Mark Canha, and McNeil himself. With the universal DH coming to baseball in 2022, a high-quality tenth bat that can play multiple positions and start four times a week is a critical component to a contender, and slotting McNeil into this role would leverage his defensive versatility while still hedging against another poor season.
Fittingly, this is roughly the role PECOTA currently projects McNeil for, projecting him for 402 PA with a 113 DRC+. That’s roughly in-line with his pre-2021 level of production (which again, BP has always been lower on than Fangraphs) and pegs McNeil as a roughly 3-win player. If you’ve got that level of player as your first guy off the bench, your roster is in a good spot. Hopefully the Mets can manipulate their roster to optimize McNeil in this role, giving him every opportunity to become the high-level contributor he’s been in the past while still setting up the team to succeed with or without him.