Jeff McNeil #1 of the New York Mets strikes out...

Jeff McNeil #1 of the New York Mets strikes out in the sixth inning against the Miami Marlins at Citi Field on Wednesday, June 12, 2024 in the Queens borough of New York City. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Which was the more surprising development Thursday in Metsville?

Brett Baty making his professional debut at second base for Triple-A Syracuse? Or Jeff McNeil, hitting .226, starting at the position in Flushing for that night’s game against the Marlins?

Both had us doing a double-take, even though the Mets were later able to back-burner the McNeil issue for another 24 hours, thanks to J.D. Martinez’s first career walk-off homer in the ninth delivering the Mets’ 3-2 victory over the Marlins.

Sticking Baty at second just seemed bonkers for a career third baseman who dabbled some in leftfield and has been trying to get his mind right all season. So not only did Baty lose his starting major-league gig to Mark Vientos, but now he’s become a guinea pig at an entirely new spot requiring a different skillset.

Yes, the Mets considered Baty their emergency middle-infielder before ultimately calling up Jose Iglesias, resulting in his demotion. But that was out of desperation, due to a roster squeeze. Grooming Baty to be an actual second baseman seems like a nutty in-season project, especially when the Mets wouldn’t even green-light some leftfield reps during spring training.

“Versatility is important,” Mendoza said Thursday afternoon. “At the time, you never know, roster-wise, where you’re at and for him to get those reps now is important. Angles, turning double plays, a lot of those things are new for him ... I think it’s going to benefit him.”

That’s quite the leap of faith. But Baty not only survived Thursday’s debut, he continued his offensive rampage at Syracuse, going 3-for-5 with two doubles and three RBIs in a 14-4 victory over Lehigh Valley. Baty also was the pivot in a 6-4-3 double play, no easy feat for someone switching to the other side of the infield.

 

Mendoza mentioned how trying Baty at second was an effort to “check that box,” but the Mets probably know the answer already. The only semi-rational motivation we could see for the Baty gambit is to maybe poke McNeil, whose shrinking playing time could be threatened by another lefty-hitting option at second base, but that’s only a conspiracy theory.

On the McNeil front, however, Mendoza & Co. probably feel like they’re running out of ideas to get him fixed. Or at least make him somewhat appealing by next month’s trade deadline (probably zero chance of that, with McNeil still owed roughly $38 million through 2026). McNeil’s problems continued Thursday with another hitless night (0-for-3) that spurred boos from the Citi crowd and dropped the former batting champ down to .223 on the season with a .601 OPS. He’s a 0.0 WAR player (via FanGraphs) this season — dead last in MLB among the 21 qualifying second basemen.

McNeil entered Thursday in a 6-for-37 skid (.162) but Mendoza chose to give him a second straight start anyway, despite now having a viable alternative in Iglesias, who was hitting .435 (10-for-23) with a 1.002 OPS in eight games since being recalled by the Mets. At the very least, using a McNeil/Iglesias platoon would be logical, but Mendoza split up the first two games against the Marlins’ lefty starters. So if a straight platoon was out, I asked the manager how he intended to handle the position.

“Look, I’ll continue to say Jeff McNeil is our second baseman,” Mendoza said. “And he’s going to continue to get playing time. Iglesias has been great, especially against lefties. His defense, his energy, and how much he’s talking to players. But we need Jeff McNeil.”

We get Mendoza’s public show of support for McNeil. He’s a two-time All-Star, a former batting champ and a core Met since 2018. Not to mention he’s saddled with that immovable contract. But Mendoza’s got games to win and a limited time to rally these Mets back into serious wild-card contention — by our guess, another month, tops — and the clock is ticking. His moves as a first-year manager have all been about the bottom line, currently trying to dig out from seven games under .500, and that’s how Mendoza should be dealing with second base, too.

The Mets can’t afford to carry a black hole in the lineup, and with McNeil holding onto the second base job by his fingernails, Mendoza can’t be this patient forever. For now, the manager is attempting to the make the best out of an awkward situation, but it’s hard to argue that the Mets are better on a daily basis with McNeil playing over Iglesias at second base.

“We need him to get going,” Mendoza said, “because we know he’s a really good player.”

Mendoza also is probably worried about losing McNeil altogether if he relegates him to a bench role. His only hope is for McNeil to somehow pull out of this first-half funk and spare him the decision he’d rather avoid.

To that end, McNeil was among only three Mets out for early batting practice Thursday — along with Pete Alonso and Francisco Alvarez — so maybe putting in some extra work will eventually pay off. Stranger things have happened.

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