Monday, January 30, 2023

Jeff McNeil's Incredible Journey

The Jeff McNeil contract extension was a good business decision that benefits the New York Mets, the fans, and McNeil himself.

Jeff McNeil began his career with the New York Mets when he was drafted in the 12th round of the 2013 draft after three seasons with Long Beach State. Jeff put up a .296/.356/.358 combined slash line with the 49ers with 0 HR over his college career. That makes it easy to understand why a future batting champion was drafted so low. Interestingly enough, another light-hitting infielder taken 2 rounds before McNeil in that amateur draft named Luis Guillorme also made it to the big leagues as a New York Met.

I was already paying close attention to the Mets' draft choices in 2013, but I don't remember reading much about McNeil coming out of that draft. College players drafted that low are generally organizational fillers rather than actual prospects. That was the case with Jeff, even though McNeil had a solid pro debut in 2013 in rookie ball with Kingsport — a team and league that were both victims of MLB's eventual contraction of the minors. First-round pick Dominic Smith and Amed Rosario were much more heralded teammates with Jeff on that club.

Jeff McNeil played at 2 levels the following season, 2014. At Low-A Savannah and High-A St. Lucie. Jeff slashed a combined .292/.367/.394, still displaying little power but managing 3 HR. Then, in 2015, McNeil spent most of the season in St. Lucie, again showing a solid hitting tool but little power (.312/.373/.383). He was sent to the Arizona Fall League after the season, where he did not impress (.230/.309/.246). I found a scouting report on Jeff McNeil from 2015 on Baseball Prospectus that was hardly bullish on his future:

McNeil's profile is extremely limited by his complete lack of power and strength and his average defensive abilities, which make second base his best fit. He could play short stop or third base in short stints, giving him a potential future as a utility player, but he would be exposed at either position if he played their for an extended period of time.

Offensively, McNeil does have plus bat-to-ball skills which lead to high contact rates and the ability to spray the ball to all fields when he stays through the hitting zone. His hit tool plays down slightly, however, despite his barrel control because his lack of strength and authority in his swing limits the exit velocity on even those balls that are well-struck.

At best, McNeil can hope to carve out a roll as a utility/bench option, which will be possible due to being left-handed and not striking out much. He's not likely, however, to ever be an everyday player, as his flaws would be exposed with regular playing time.

The above report was typical of what I heard about McNeil back then. It's a remarkable tribute to Jeff's talent and terrific work ethic that he added enough power to complement his bat-to-ball skills to make himself into a very productive hitter and a solid defender at both second base and in the outfield. While the scouting report quoted above obviously didn't age that well, the author was right in line with the general consensus on Jeff McNeil. Few foresaw what was to come.

2016 was a lost season for Jeff. He made only 14 PA for Double-A Binghamton. In a 2017 interview with Ernest Dove for, McNeil revealed that he needed surgeries for a double sports hernia and a tear in his hip. McNeil continued to struggle with his health, playing only 48 minor league games in 2017. By the way, to his credit, Dove was higher on McNeil than most who covered him. From the piece linked above:

In 2015, Jeff played with the St Lucie Mets in the Florida State League. I was able to watch Jeff play in person during this season and fell in love with his style of play. What I saw was an aggressive attacking hitter, willing to do anything to get on-base. I saw Jeff draw walks, bunt for hits and make solid contact to get on base, and then cause havoc on the bases with his aggressiveness.

Defensively, he showed an ability to play an average to above average second and third base, while also logging time at shortstop as well. He even played two games at first base and one in center field.

I was really looking forward to seeing Jeff move on to the Double-A after his 2015 season in which he led the Florida State League in on-base percentage and runs scored, finished second in batting and third in hits.

With injuries limiting McNeil for two consecutive minor league seasons, Jeff's chances of making it to the Mets didn't look great. But the 26-year-old had a major breakout in 2018. Jeff slashed .327/.403/.626 in 57 games at Double-A Binghamton, earning a promotion to Triple-A Las Vegas. Then McNeil continued to rake, slashing .368/.427/.600 in Vegas. In 88 minor league games over the two levels, McNeil displayed power for the first time, with 26 doubles and 19 homers combined.

This season put Jeff on the map as a prospect, earning him a promotion to New York in late July. Other than rehab stints, McNeil was in MLB to stay. At 26, McNeil had overcome injuries and remade his offensive game, turning himself from a marginal utility man prospect into a starter, an All-Star, and eventually a batting champion.

But Jeff McNeil's wonderful story suffered from one more major setback. Despite hitting a combined .319/.383/.501 from his callup in 2018 through the COVID season of 2020, many fans and pundits were willing to quickly write Jeff McNeil off after his disappointing showing in 2021. I must have seen dozens of trade proposals that included McNeil on Twitter and elsewhere after that season. I was worried that the Mets might indeed sell low on him that winter. Thankfully, the Mets elected to hold onto Jeff. He rewarded their faith by winning a batting title in 2022, offering defensive versatility and being a catalyst for the Mets' offense.

In my opinion, it's important to not overlook the remarkable journey that has taken McNeil from an unheralded 12th-round pick with an offensive game that was a throwback to a time when slap hitters proliferated on major league infields, all the way to Citi Field. If you could go back in time to 2017 and find a bookie willing to cover a bet that McNeil would win a league batting title in 5 years, you would have made a tidy little fortune. I'm glad for Jeff that he was able to take advantage of his inspiring personal story and set himself and his family up financially for life.

And look, some have questioned how the Mets were able to sign McNeil coming off a great season for "so little." I get it to a point. McNeil's lifetime OPS+ of 128 is a great number for a second baseman, much less one who offers the positional versatility of McNeil. $12.5 million per season isn't up there with many of the big contracts we've seen this off-season. Jeff is, after all, the reigning National League batting champion.

McNeil could have elected to bet on himself and wait two more seasons for free agency. But, thanks to his late start due to injuries, Jeff would have been going into free agency ahead of his age-33 season. Even if he had still been performing at a high level, it would have been tough to secure a really big contract at that point in his career. Given that and the previous injury history, it made sense for Jeff McNeil to prioritize security over getting maximum value. $50 million is hardly chicken feed. It's life-changing money. And I'm glad for McNeil's sake that he was able to attain that level of security from where he started in baseball.

This is also a win for fans like me. Players like Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo, and Pete Alonso have a legacy with the New York Mets. They were drafted, developed, promoted to the majors, and became stars with this organization. Whenever possible, it behooves the club to keep them in the fold as long as possible, if not for their entire careers. It still rankles that Zack Wheeler was allowed to sign a pretty reasonable contract with a division rival by the previous ownership. While I understand that decisions will always have to be made about whether it's in the best interest of the team to keep a player, I feel secure that simple cheapness won't be the deciding factor in any of these choices going forward.

Please be well and take care. Only two weeks to go before pitchers and catchers report! Let's go Mets!

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