PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — On the first day of his baseball new year, in between typical Florida showers Monday afternoon, Jeff McNeil’s unremarkable routine included taking a few ground balls with the other infielders — T.J. Rivera, Andres Gimenez and Dominic Smith among them.
McNeil has done the same thing thousands of times in his six years as a pro. This year, though, maybe not so much.
The Mets are working on teaching — or reteaching — McNeil the outfield, his part-time college position, where he has played in eight minor-league games since being drafted by the Mets in 2013.
With the infield crowded, especially his primary position of second base, the Mets figure expanding his defensive repertoire is worth a shot.
“It’s been a while since I’ve played games [in the outfield], but just about every single day in the minor leagues, I was taking fly balls,” McNeil said. “For the most part, I feel really comfortable.
“I’ll definitely play some outfield, still play some infield, but move all around the infield.”
General manager Brodie Van Wagenen said on WFAN on Monday that as long as the infielders stay healthy, the Mets expect the bulk of McNeil’s at-bats to come as an outfielder. He could see a significant amount of playing time, even if means moving Michael Conforto or Brandon Nimmo to center.
“We think we can be a lethal lineup with a McNeil-Conforto-Nimmo outfield against righthanded pitching,” Van Wagenen said.
McNeil’s outfield transition included a visit this month from Mets quality control coach Luis Rojas, his manager in Binghamton last year, who will work with the outfielders this year.
At a junior college near McNeil’s home in Nipomo, California, they worked on footwork drills and “first-step stuff,” McNeil said.
“Just to get a little head start,” he added. “It was just kind of revisiting it. I worked a little bit on the minor-league side last year in the outfield, basically the same kind of stuff.”
The Mets’ desire to move McNeil to another part of the field underscores how far he has come in a year. At this time last season, he wasn’t even invited to major-league camp and had been limited by injury to 51 games the previous two seasons. The Mets still were intrigued by his potential, and he had a spot waiting for him with Double-A Binghamton, but he had to prove he was healthy.
Now he has status.
“Definitely completely different coming into this year,” said McNeil, 26, who hit .329 with a .381 on-base percentage and .471 slugging percentage in 63 games as a Met. “Last year, I was trying to make a team, trying to play well in spring training on the minor-league side. I had a great year. This year, come in and, yes, definitely learning a new position, but I’m not too worried. I know they’re going to put me in a lot, whether it’s left, center or right during games, so I’ll get used to it.”
About that: McNeil said he is ready to practice at and play all three outfield positions. Mets decision-makers haven’t said outright that McNeil is an option in center, but he said he “had a blast there in college.”
However the specifics sort out, McNeil is treating spring training as if he is “still trying to win a spot,” an appropriate ending to his roller-coaster offseason. In November, Van Wagenen said he was “penciled in” as the starting second baseman. In December, the Mets discussed trading him to Seattle in the Robinson Cano/Edwin Diaz deal, only to keep him and bring in a replacement, Cano. That seemingly made McNeil a utility infielder until the Mets signed Jed Lowrie, which meant McNeil was destined for the outfield.
“Just do whatever I can,” he said, “to get in the lineup this year again.”