It’s quite rare that we so often see how trade negotiations between teams play out, but because this Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz to Mets trade has been dragged out for well over 24 hours, news has seemingly been reported as the teams have continued to discussed the terms of the trade.
Through all the reports and confirmations and confirmations of those confirmations by the team of national baseball reporters (and some local ones, too), we have caught a legitimate glimpse into how the negotiations between the Mariners and Mets have progressed literally as they are progressing.
I am not going to recount every player that was once in this deal and now isn’t, or vice versa (don’t even get me started on the reported cash that is moving from Seattle to New York — I still can’t completely wrap my head around it). But, one name who was originally in this trade who is no longer is infielder Jeff McNeil.
And, as I suggested on Twitter throughout Thursday’s saga, keeping Jeff McNeil on the Mets’ roster is imperative to their present and future.
If the Mets have a true desire win next season, as they have demonstrated by making this trade in the first place, infielder Jeff McNeil needs to be on their Opening Day roster. I’d even argue that their removal of McNeil from this trade is more significant than keeping Jarred Kelenic, the top prospect and 2018 first round pick, in it.
Mets fans are still upset, however, that new GM Brodie Van Wagenen would be so quick to trade a player (Kelenic) who is seemingly destined for a good Major League career. And, while their anger is certainly warranted to some degree, Van Wagenen has proven that the short-term is more important to him than the long-term. After all, he wouldn’t trade for an aging second baseman in Cano if he wanted the team to contend in 2021.
That’s why McNeil plays a larger role in the Mets’ plans than a player like Kelenic. And that’s why they can’t trade him this offseason. All of this, of course, depends on whether McNeil is able to repeat his 2018 performance in 2019 and beyond.
The 26-year-old rookie slashed .329/.381/.471 (137 wRC+) with three home runs and 19 RBIs in 248 plate appearances this past season over 63 games. He played so well, in fact, that he even received some down-ballot votes for NL Rookie of the Year. In his short time in the Major Leagues, McNeil was worth 2.7 fWAR. Of course, there are a lot of factors that are working against McNeil’s case to return to that same level of productivity in the future.
First, as a 26 year old, McNeil was clearly no hotshot prospect. It’s one thing if a young player is projected to be a big league star and then lives up to the hype. It’s another, however, if it’s a 26 year old rookie and former 12th round pick hitting well over just 248 plate appearances. McNeil is obviously a question mark to some degree.
Second, McNeil’s underlying numbers last year suggest regression in his offensive numbers. A .359 BABIP is unsustainable. A 85.2 mph average exit velocity — approximately 2 mph below MLB-average — also does not bode well for his future production.
With all of this said, McNeil does have some factors working in his favor. His 41.0 percent ground ball rate is 4.8 points below the MLB-average, and his average launch angle last year was 3.1 degrees above MLB-average, too. We have seen time and time again that players who avoid ground balls are more successful, and if McNeil can keep this up, it may not matter as much that he isn’t hitting the ball that hard.
Still, Steamer still sees a successful 2019 season for McNeil, even with regression included. The projection system pegs him at a .275/.329/.423 slash line (108 wRC+) with 14 home runs and 63 RBIs over 616 plate appearances, good for a 3.0 fWAR. A .324 projected wOBA sounds about right for McNeil, especially considering Baseball Savant pegged McNeil as posting a .322 xwOBA last year.
Clearly, even with a slightly above-average bat (or even just a league-average bat) McNeil has the full-season potential to be an incredibly successful player both in 2019 and beyond. A lot of this comes from his defense, which was worth 1.9 runs above average this season in a short stint but still projects to be solid again next year.
With Cano in the fold in New York, McNeil’s value could be suppressed, but by no means will he automatically become ineffective. McNeil’s bat would play up better as a second baseman (MLB-average 93 wRC+) than as a third baseman (102 wRC+). Playing the hot corner, McNeil’s most likely spot, may hurt his value just by nature of his peers across the league.
McNeil could turn into an all-around, Ben Zobrist-like player if things go right, playing multiple positions at the big league level. He has over 1,000 defensive innings across his professional career at second and third base, adding another 358 at short. He even has spent minimal time at left and center field, too. If that’s a possibility for McNeil’s future, he’d be even more valuable for the Mets and their roster construction.
Clearly, Jeff McNeil isn’t a perfect player, and he may never be an All-Star. But, he’s producing at the big league level and could sustain this performance (at least defensively) next year. For a Mets team that is officially in win-now mode, Jeff McNeil needs to be on their Opening Day roster.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.