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Jeff McNeil at third base: What took so long, Mets?

Jeff McNeil catches a ball during Mets' split-squad

Jeff McNeil catches a ball during Mets' split-squad scrimmage Feb. 22 in Port St. Lucie, Fla.  Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

 PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.

So Jeff McNeil is going back to the infield Sunday, when he’s scheduled to play third base against the Cardinals.

Well, that makes sense.

After waiting weeks for someone, anyone, in the Mets’ organization to admit their glaring need at the hot corner — a void created by the no-return-in-sight injuries to Todd Frazier (oblique) and Jed Lowrie (knee) — it was McNeil who finally stepped up Friday, thanks to a little prodding.

“I believe I am playing third on Sunday,” McNeil said.

What brought on the question was McNeil’s windswept adventure in leftfield during the Mets’ 10-3 loss to the Marlins. He got turned around on Isaac Galloway’s hard-hit fly ball that kicked off his outstretched glove and wound up with him sprawled on the warning track.

McNeil crash-landed hard. To his credit, he got up quickly and fired a strong relay throw to Andres Gimenez, who was able to cut down the runner at the plate.

All in all, a nice recovery by McNeil and a net gain. He gets an A-plus for effort.

“The wind was pretty tough out there,” McNeil said. “I actually had a real good read on it and the wind just kind of pushed it back over my right shoulder. I did the most athletic thing I could. It hit the palm of my glove and just happened to pop out. I make that catch almost every time.”

Because the extent of McNeil’s outfield experience was back in college, he’s putting in the effort to get up to speed. But the Mets should be concerned about protecting the more important part of his game, the offensive side, which McNeil displayed Friday with a leadoff homer, his first Grapefruit League hit. The Mets need that bat, and keeping him intact for Opening Day is paramount, especially with Frazier and Lowrie on ice.

McNeil already missed games earlier in spring training after scraping his hand on a diving attempt, slowing his progress in leftfield. The Mets can’t risk getting him banged up by pushing this experiment when they have to rely on him to play third, very likely for Opening Day. They got lucky when McNeil survived that spinning tumble, but it’s time to start thinking ahead to the Nationals at the end of this month.

After arriving at camp with the plan of using McNeil about 80 percent in leftfield and 20 percent at third base, Mickey Callaway admitted Friday to altering that to more like a 50-50 split. Don’t be surprised if it tilts even further toward third as the Mets realize they’re covered with plenty of outfielders.

While we understand the ever-increasing versatility trend around the league, the Mets face a real crisis at third, and at the moment, McNeil’s potent bat is looking like their best option in that spot. The shift in his positional focus is now a requirement.

“To make sure that we’re covered in all scenarios,” Callaway said.

One scenario includes McNeil in left, of course, when the Mets want to go with an all-lefthanded-hitting outfield, using Brandon Nimmo in center and Michael Conforto in right. That’s a dangerous plate trio, but McNeil, combined with Nimmo’s iffy reads, could make for some suspect glovework.

The Mets believe that McNeil will be a capable outfielder by the start of the regular season, although Callaway’s comments suggest he’s not there yet.

“I think he’s looked really good,” he said. “It’s been limited because he was out for a little while [with the hand scrape]. But what we see, he gets the ball in quick. He still hasn’t played outfield a ton, so what we’ve seen to this point, I think we’ve been satisfied with. I think he’ll continue to get better and better the more reps he gets out there, the more balls he sees live off the bat.”

Callaway emphasized that McNeil has to have those reps in Grapefruit League games, and he’s right. They can’t be duplicated in practice. McNeil has to be tested in real-time speed.

As for what degree of comfort McNeil can achieve, that isn’t entirely known yet.

We’ve seen some of this before. The Mets tried to force Daniel Murphy into a super-utility role by using him in leftfield, and that had disastrous consequences before they made him strictly an infielder. McNeil hasn’t been the white-knuckle adventure that Murphy was, but the games don’t count yet.

Bottom line, it’s time for McNeil to play third, and the Mets finally figured that out.

New York Sports