How Jeff McNeil is embracing life as a Mets outfielder
PORT ST. LUCIE — Jeff McNeil went from starting second baseman to utility infielder to part-time outfielder all during one offseason with the Mets.
The 26-year-old McNeil scrapped to reach the major leagues last season and is determined to take the same approach and force his way into manager Mickey Callaway’s lineup in 2019.
“Last year, I was trying to make the team and trying to play well, and in spring training I was on the minor league side and had a great year,” McNeil said Monday upon reporting to spring training.
“This year I am coming in, definitely learning a new position, but I am not too worried. I know they are going to put me in a lot, whether that’s left, center or right during games, so I will get used to it.”
McNeil has been working with new outfield coach Luis Rojas this winter on the transition. Rojas recently visited McNeil at home on the West Coast to work on footwork and his first step. Though McNeil was a regular outfielder at Long Beach State, his experience has been limited to eight games in the outfield since then.
It’s an outfield scene that includes Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, Juan Lagares and Keon Broxton, with Yoenis Cespedes sidelined indefinitely as he rehabs from surgery to remove calcifications from both heels.
McNeil’s .329/.381/.471 slash line with three homers and 19 RBIs in 63 games last season suggests he’s worthy of consideration.
“It’s been a while since I have played [regularly in the outfield], but just about every day in the minor leagues I have taken balls so for the most part I’ve felt real comfortable and I felt real comfortable there in college,” McNeil said. “That was a while ago. I had some games out there last year and ended up playing really well out there, so I am not too worried.”
The infield includes Robinson Cano (whose arrival in a trade with the Mariners blocked McNeil from second base), Amed Rosario, Jed Lowrie, Todd Frazier and potentially Peter Alonso. It was Lowrie’s arrival on a two-year contract worth $20 million to serve as a utility infielder that changed the conversation to McNeil needing to learn the outfield.
Last season, the Mets converted first baseman Dominic Smith to a part-time outfielder in an attempt to find at-bats for him.
Alonso, who developed a tight bond with McNeil in the minor leagues, will compete for the starting job at first base after hitting 36 homers last season for Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Las Vegas.
“His bat is unbelievable,” McNeil said. “When he’s hot, he’s one of the best hitters I’ve ever seen, so I know he’s going to come into spring training … he’s going to work real hard. One of the hardest-working guys I have ever played with, so it’s going to be good to have him around.
“He’s always taking ground balls, always in the cage. He truly wants to get better. I am excited to see what he’s worked on this offseason and how much better he looks.”
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