I previously wrote about the potential value of Dominic Smith, one of the two players the New York Post’s Mike Puma said the Mets are considering trading, to the Yankees. Now, let’s take a look at the other, who is much more compelling, though not without risk to any team who acquires him — infielder/outfielder Jeff McNeil.
After his second-year season in 2019, McNeil looked like a potential star in the making. His 4.6 fWAR season featured 23 home runs and a .318/.384/.531 slash line. His pandemic-shortened 2020 season didn’t feature as much power, but he still hit over .300 and increased his walks while reducing strikeouts.
2021, unfortunately for him in the Mets, was a bit of a disaster. McNeil’s power totally evaporated — he had only a .109 ISO, with seven home runs over 120 games. He also lost a lot of time due to injuries, suffering a hamstring strain and “left leg fatigue.”
McNeil also committed the no-no of being involved in an incident born for the back page of the Post, physically fighting star shortstop Francisco Lindor in the dugout during a game and then insisting that they disagreed about whether an animal they saw was a rat or a racoon.
There is the matter of where he would play on defense, as well. He debuted as a second baseman, then moved to left field before moving back to the infield. Those spots are expected to be handled every day by some combination of Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu and Joey Gallo. Baseball Savant has his outs above average at second and left as decent to good (with values of 4 and 1, respectively). However, FanGraphs has him with a negative UZR wherever he plays.
McNeil will turn 30 in early April, so he shouldn’t be totally on the decline but may not be on an upswing any more. Still, the skills he showed at his best are tantalizing for a Yankees offense that screamed for some solid contact. In that All-Star 2019 season, McNeil swung at the highest percentage of pitches inside the strike zone of any hitter, leading to his 162 hits in 133 games. The Yankees lineup frequently looked way too sluggish, and McNeil’s successful aggressiveness would be a breath of fresh air.
Of course, that depends on if he would actually be successful. By all accounts, McNeil looked overmatched on offense in 2021. He did not hit the ball hard or barrel many balls and didn’t take many walks.
A so-so defender who cannot put any sort of charge into the ball is not a player who would really help the Yankees in 2022. McNeil’s track record of success, however, would make him a worthwhile acquisition as a bounce-back candidate, in my opinion. Even if he could only be a utility bench-player, that would still have value if he can go back to making the contact he did in 2020. The Yankees’ bench depth was exposed this season, and McNeil would almost certainly provide more value than the likes of Andrew Velazquez did.
There are other concerns besides his play. The fight with Lindor was allegedly sparked because McNeil apparently refused to comply with the Mets’ desired defensive positioning, which also led to a brief benching. Not listening to basic coaching is obviously suboptimal, and any infielder would generally be expected to acquiesce to the on-field instructions of a known star defender like Lindor as well. The Mets were known to have something of a chaotic clubhouse — perhaps he would be better kept in hand in the Bronx, where such incidences don’t seem as common. Or maybe he would just create strife.
If the Mets accept players in return based on McNeil’s 2021 performance and not his 2019, I think he would absolutely be worth a shot for the Yankees. There are absolutely concerns based on his weak hitting 2021 and character concerns, though. If the Mets want to get rid of him rather than counting him bouncing back to be one of the best contact hitters in baseball, that could be a red flag too. Ultimately, his upside will likely get him a good shot at playing time, with the Mets, Yankees, or any other team.