Over the course of his first three seasons in the big-leagues (2018-2020), Mets second baseman/utility man Jeff McNeil produced an impressive career slash line of .319/.383/.501/.884.
However, in 2021, a number of Mets’ hitters struggled immensely, including McNeil, who slashed just .251/.319/.360 with a .679 OPS across 120 games.
Now, once the lockout ends, the Mets intend on making McNeil available on the trading block with their sights set on acquiring pitching help in return, as multiple sources told Inside the Mets on Thursday.
Although McNeil's underwhelming performance last season was an outlier based off his overall track record, the Mets have made a significant effort to improve the culture of the team, which is why they signed a group of veteran players this winter that are known for being good clubhouse guys in Max Scherzer, Starling Marte, Eduardo Escobar and Mark Canha.
Last year, McNeil was involved in an early season dust up with $341 million shortstop Francisco Lindor over a misplayed ground ball up the middle. This of course, resulted in the infamous rat-raccoon incident back in May, which was the first of many distractions surrounding the club a season ago.
As The New York Post reported in November, Lindor grabbed McNeil by the throat and pinned him against the wall in the dugout tunnel, before teammates rushed down the steps to break it up. In fact, tension had been brewing for several weeks as McNeil refused to comply with the Mets’ defensive shifting philosophy, deliberately ignoring instruction on numerous occasions. This led to now ex-manager Luis Rojas quietly benching McNeil sometime in May. It also caused Lindor to hit his boiling point, as The Post said McNeil would tell his double play partner to "shut up" and "I got it" after being advised on where to be positioned.
This did not sit well with McNeil's teammates and has still yet to be resolved. According to multiple sources, McNeil's relationship with several members of the roster has soured over the past year. However, sources say this is not a driving force in why the team is open to trading him.
A source close to the situation says the Mets have received a substantial amount of calls from other clubs regarding McNeil's availability because teams value his talent and he is also under cheap control for the next three seasons.
McNeil, Dom Smith and J.D. Davis all endured disappointing campaigns last year, but McNeil would draw the biggest return in a trade for the Mets, which is why the team is listening to calls on him. The 29-year-old has the most upside of the bunch after making the All-Star team in 2019, while proving to be an above average hitter across his first 1,000 plate appearances in the majors.
Mike Mayer of Metsmerized revealed back in November that a number of teams had reached out to the Mets about McNeil before the lockout. And after one rough season, it doesn't sound like the rest of the league is writing him off just yet.
While no deal is imminent, McNeil has maintained trade interest since back in the 2018-19 offseason when he was initially included in the package that saw the Mets acquire Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano from the Seattle Mariners. But ex-GM Brodie Van Wagenen pulled McNeil from the deal at the last minute, and top prospect Jarred Kelenic was the most notable center piece in the trade.
After Javier Báez bolted for the Detroit Tigers in free agency, McNeil is currently projected to be the Mets' starting second baseman in 2022. But the double play combination between McNeil and Lindor didn't go so smoothly last season, and It's difficult to envision the Mets trying to make it work again.
With McNeil expected to be made available, it could potentially mean a few things: The Mets are looking to land a starting pitcher and/or reliever via trade, and they may still go after an additional big bat on the free agent market to replace him.
Starting pitchers Sean Manaea and Chris Bassitt are simultaneously entering the final year of their deals with the Oakland Athletics, who are believed to be on the verge of slashing payroll once the work stoppage is over. Beyond the A’s, the Cincinnati Reds are another club that could cut costs later this winter, and Luis Castillo is the most attractive name in their rotation. Albeit, Castillo will likely cost more in assets in a trade given that he has two more years of arbitration left in 2022 and 2023.
On the reliever front, Mike Puma of The Post previously reported that the Mets had eyes on Twins left-hander Taylor Rogers. Rogers, 31, is entering his final year of arbitration and is set to make $6.25 million next season. The southpaw has closing experience and is a potential fit as a late-inning arm due to the departure of Aaron Loup.
As for bringing in a big bat, versatile third baseman Kris Bryant is a name that the Mets showed interest in prior to the CBA expiring on Dec. 2. By signing Bryant, Escobar would likely be pushed over to second, forming a new double play partnership with Lindor. And Bryant's bat would provide a strong presence in the middle of the Mets' lineup as well.
Shortstop Trevor Story is another highly regarded option that’s available via free agency, and scouts told NJ Advance Media recently that he projects as a future second baseman due to previous elbow strain issues, which could make him a fit defensively. If Story moves to second base, it will diminish the wear and tear on his throwing elbow at short.
Both Bryant and Story are expected to draw nine-figure salaries, and if the Mets were able to land one of them, it would increase their projected luxury tax payroll to around $300 million in 2022. After team owner Steve Cohen and new general manager Billy Eppler splurged $254.5 million in free agency last month, the Mets' current payroll rose to $271,144,000 million, per FanGraphs' RosterResource.
So, while McNeil is a cheaper option than the latter two bats, under control for three more years and a prime candidate to have a bounce back season at the plate next year due to his prior success, we could possibly see him shipped out of town if the Mets are able to move him in a trade for pitching help after the lockout. If not, the team will be hoping that he reverts back to his All-Star form should he stick around in Queens next season.