Jeff McNeil Must Stay In Left Field
With Jed Lowrie and Todd Frazier suffering injuries this Spring, the temptation may be to shift Jeff McNeil to third base and to play Juan Lagares in center. There is sound logic in the thought process. Lagares is the best center fielder on the team, and if Lowrie and Frazier cannot go, McNeil is clearly the best player available to play third.
While there is logic behind the thought process, the Mets should resist the temptation.
Heading into this season, McNeil has played just 65.1 innings in the outfield in his professional career. He has played 35.1 of those 65.1 innings in left field, the position he is slated to play in 2019. That includes just 17.0 innings in left field for Las Vegas last season. While he notably worked on the position with Tony DeFrancesco last year, and he has put his time in working at the position during Spring Training, he lacks game experience.
There are aspects to McNeil’s game which would indicated he can succeed in left field. According to Baseball Savant, McNeil has the same sprint speed as Andrew Benintendi (4 DRS), which would indicate he has the speed to cover the position. It’s also worth noting McNeil is a smart player who has moved all over the field in his professional career. He is accustomed to adapting and learning a new position.
While you may point to McNeil’s arm in left as a concern, the greater concern is his lack of experience at the position. It is one thing to have him play fewer than 20 innings in the minors, and it is a whole other thing to expect him to play over 1,000 innings at the position at the Major League level. No matter how much time he spends on the back fields working on it, there is no substitute for in-game experience, and McNeil is in need of that.
If the long term plan is to have McNeil as the team’s left fielder, the team is going to have to stick with that plan. You don’t want a situation where he plays third for a week or even a month only to later have him shift to left field. It doesn’t help him improve at the position, and you face the risk of him losing experience out there costing the Mets a game in the future.
Ultimately, the Mets have built a team where they are best suited to having McNeil playing everyday in the outfield. This is partially the result of finding a place for him to play and partially the result of the lack of real outfield depth. Considering that is in the team’s best interests, they need to make sure McNeil is the best possible defensive left fielder he can be.
That means resisting the temptation of having him play at third base while Frazier and Lowrie are unable to go. Instead, the Mets need to be looking at their other options like J.D. Davis and T.J. Rivera at third and leave McNeil in the outfield. Essentially, they need to treat McNeil just like they would any other outfielder.