‘Twas a confusing off-season indeed for the New York Mets. At various points, sometimes within the same week, fans were unaware if their squad was retooling or rebuilding. As has become the prototype for any new front office regime in professional sports, the expectation with Brodie Van Wagenen at the helm was for a complete tear down of a Mets team that went to the World Series in 2015 but has had little else in the way of tangible success since. After toying with the idea of trading off superstar pitchers Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, he instead compiled a pretty strong roster that can contend in the NL East if all parties involved can play up to their potential.
From a quick glance at the Amazins current roster, we can see a host of known commodities: deGrom, Syndergaard, Edwin Diaz, Jeurys Familia, Jed Lowrie, Robinson Cano, Todd Frazier. All of these guys are vets, capable of walking out onto the field and giving you solid numbers with some room for improvement over last year, except for deGrom…if you can improve on a 1.70 ERA & Cy Young nod then I fear for the rest of baseball. Behind them are a host of youngsters all of whom could surprise us with a big breakthrough in 2019: Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, J.D. Davis, Keon Broxton, Ahmed Rosario. But there’s one guy in particular I think could take Citi Field by storm in a pretty surprising role…
Jeff McNeil joined the Mets in the second half of the 2018 campaign to very little fan fair and a genuine disappointment as his promotion from the minors essentially signaled the team raising the white flag. He was an underwhelming prospect, already in his mid-20s, with no discernible strengths on the diamond. The Mets gave him a shot because they’d already promoted a host of other top prospects and needed some depth given the slew of injuries that plagued them. What happened next was shocking…
McNeil posted a .329/.382/.471 slash line in 63 games for New York, marks that if carried out for a lengthier stretch would have posed a legitimate challenge for the unanimous NL Rookie of the Year, Ronald Acuna. Even more shocking however is that nobody seemed to notice that in this era of baseball which glorifies the three true outcomes (home run, strikeout, walk) a true-contact hitter had arrived.
Jeff McNeil will face an obvious uphill battle in 2019. The Mets’ attempt to “win now” has led them to bring in a pair of All-Star second basemen (McNeil’s natural position) and a high-upside young third baseman (the only other position he’s manned professionally). But McNeil has put in a sizable amount of work in the offseason to learn how to play first base and all three outfield spots, and the Mets have faith that he can become a defensive-utility man.
So why deem a non-every-day player our first potential breakout star of the new campaign? Well, because his all-around flexibility combined with a historically injury prone franchise means that he’ll see way more playing time than your average bench player. Additionally his high-average approach at the plate translates well to a pinch hit role that we saw Mickey Callaway turn to more than any other manager in baseball last year aside from Dave Roberts (Dodgers) & Joe Maddon (Cubs).
Fangraphs currently projects a .289./.350/.443 slash line for the coming season, in only around 80 more plate appearances. If you expand that slightly to account for rest and the injury-prone Mets, we very well could see baseball’s best utility guy come to life in Queens this summer. Throw in the obvious Daniel Murphy comparisons and McNeil might force his way into even more playing time with his offensive consistency!