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The ups and downs of the Mets' Jeff McNeil

Mets left fielder Jeff McNeil reacts after he

Mets left fielder Jeff McNeil reacts after he struck out on a foul tip against the St. Louis Cardinals during the eighth inning at Citi Field on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Among the many questions the Mets will have to answer this offseason is what exactly is Jeff McNeil?

Is he a top-of-the-order hitter like the guy who hit .329, .318 and .311 in his first three seasons? Or is he the guy who batted eighth for just the fourth time in his career on Wednesday and needed a 3-for-4 night to get his average up to .250?

Is he the guy who, in his only other season of more than 100 games, hit 23 home runs with a .916 OPS in 2019? Or is he the guy who this season has six home runs and a .675 OPS?

Is he a second baseman like he was on Opening Day? Or a leftfielder like he has been since the Mets got Javier Baez?

Most important, is the 29-year-old "Squirrel" a part of the Mets’ future plans or someone they need to move on from starting in 2022?

McNeil had a single, double and triple on Wednesday in the Mets’ 11-4 loss to the Cardinals. Since he was batting so low in the order, he didn’t get a fifth plate appearance to try for a home run that would have completed the cycle.

McNeil said his approach on Wednesday was the "same as it always is. Trying to get a good pitch. Just trying to hit it hard. I think I’ve been swinging the bat pretty decent the last few weeks. Hitting balls hard just right at people. Today they found some holes and I had some results to show for it."

McNeil said he is "a little disappointed with how I’ve played this year. It's not where I want to be, where I expect to be. Definitely had some stretches there when I hit the ball well, hit the ball hard. Just haven't got the results. It's kind of taught me how to go back and look at other years. [Underlying] numbers are very similar. I think the batting average on balls in play is way down. I don't know if that's unlucky or whatever, but I look at my numbers analytically and they all look decent. So it’s a little frustrating for me. I want to be better. I expect a lot out of myself, so hopefully I can finish strong here and get some results."

Here are McNeil’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) by year:

2018: .359

2019: .337

2020: .335

2021: .279

So it seems as if he has a point. Maybe he just has been unlucky?

"Seems like whenever I hit it hard, it’s right at someone right now," he said. "[Tuesday] night I could have had two or three hits. They made some good plays. It is what it is. I need to go up there and continue to take good at-bats, swing at good pitches, hit the ball hard and hopefully the results will follow."

McNeil’s defensive versatility has worked for and against him this season. If the Mets re-sign Baez to play second base, McNeil could stay in left, or he could replace Michael Conforto in right if Conforto leaves as a free agent.

One giant wild card is Robinson Cano, who is still on the Mets' books for two years and $40.5 million after his PED suspension ends at the end of this season. Will the Mets simply release and pay Cano, who turns 39 in October, or will they welcome him back in the hopes that the designated hitter will return to the National League for good next season?

And the biggest wild card of all: It’s not clear who will be making the Mets’ baseball decisions this offseason. Will Sandy Alderson be able to hire a president of a baseball operations and a general manager, and if so, will those people value McNeil as part of the Mets’ core or as a trade bait to improve elsewhere?

Like we said: many questions.

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