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Mets position analysis: Jeff McNeil could be fixture at third base for next decade

Mets third baseman Jeff McNeil during a spring

Mets third baseman Jeff McNeil during a spring training game against the Marlins at Clover Park in Port St. Lucie, Fla., on Feb. 22. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

During this pandemic-induced baseball hiatus, we examine the Mets position by position. We already covered first base, second base and shortstop. Now, third base.

The starter: The Mets have something close to a best-case scenario at third base: an All-Star who is under team control for five more seasons, is making marginally more than the major-league minimum salary and, by the way, can move to at least three other positions if needed.

That is Jeff McNeil, 28, who in the past 24 months has transformed from oft-injured fringe prospect to franchise cornerstone.

Consider the majors’ batting leaders since his July 2018 debut: Christian Yelich (.339), Anthony Rendon (.323) and McNeil (.321). That's two dudes with contracts worth more than $200 million each and McNeil, who on Opening Day 2018 batted ninth for Luis Rojas’ Double-A Binghamton Rumble Ponies.

Last year he also played leftfield, second base and rightfield, but the Mets’ intention for 2020 is to let him stay at third, an infield-only plan that he believes will be easier on his body.

Taking care of McNeil physically — via extra days off here and there — was a focus for the Mets in 2019 because he dealt with so many bumps and bruises.

It is easy to forget now, after his major-league emergence, that he missed almost all of 2016 (three games played) and most of 2017 (48 games) because of injury. Last year, in his first full season in the majors, he had two brief stints on the injured list with a left hamstring strain but avoided major issues (before getting hit by a pitch and breaking his wrist in the final week of the season).

When McNeil plays, he is a dynamic, lineup-changing bat. In 2019, he had a .318/.384/.531 slash line, and his 144 OPS+ was second on the team behind Pete Alonso (148). He mostly hit leadoff but also made multiple starts batting second, third and sixth.

The other options: That best-case scenario mentioned above? A big piece of it is the Mets’ ready-made alternative: J.D. Davis, a third baseman by trade who is penciled in for leftfield for 2020.

Davis had a breakout 2019, his first year with the Mets, when he hit .307 with a .369 OBP and .527 slugging percentage. His defense at third was suspect at times, and it might be telling that the Mets decided on McNeil at third and Davis in left instead of the reverse. Still, an ability to hit like that makes questionable defense more tolerable.

Elsewhere on the roster, infielder Luis Guillorme has played 19 games at third base in parts of the past two seasons, his most at any position. Eduardo Nunez was in the running for a utility role that would have included third before the coronavirus pandemic halted spring training. Jed Lowrie, if he is ever comfortable playing the field after dealing with left leg problems for more than a year, would be an option there, too.

The future: It’s easy to imagine McNeil manning the hot corner for the next five to 10 years. In that case, the Mets’ future at third is straightforward.

But if the Mets move McNeil to one of his other positions or if he is hurt regularly or if he ages poorly — or any combination of those — Davis remains as a potential longer-term solution. Like McNeil, Davis is not scheduled to be a free agent until after the 2024 season.

The Mets have two noteworthy players at third in the minors: Brett Baty, their first-round pick last year, and Mark Vientos, a second-rounder in 2017. (Despite the difference in draft years, Vientos is one month younger than Baty.) Both are advanced for their age (20) and have big power potential but are years away from the majors. Vientos spent last year with low Class A Columbia and Baty reached short-season Class A Brooklyn.

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