PORT ST. LUCIE – Jeff McNeil’s hat trick playing third base Sunday (he made one fielding and pitching error as well as another on a missed catch) offered a reminder of why the Mets pulled him out of position last season.
Mostly uncomfortable with pitching, McNeil moved to left field in 2020 and also saw action at second base, behind Robinson Cano. With Cano suspended for the entire season after testing positive for a banned performance-enhancing drug for the second time, McNeil is listed primarily as second baseman. But there are also questions about whether JD Davis is a full-time third baseman, leaving manager Luis Rojas to try different options this spring.
“We believe in [McNeil’s] ability to play third base, but if you want to classify his positions, I know he’s more acclimated playing second base and even left field, but he’s looked good at third base in the past, ”Rojas said after the Mets and the Marlins played a 4-4 exhibition tie at Clover Park. “I know we can go back to last year when he also struggled a bit in third place, but we think he can play there.”
The most likely Plan B at third base, according to Rojas, is Jonathan Villar, who hit a three-run homer as a starting second baseman. Veteran Villar arrived this offseason with a one-year deal worth $ 3.55 million, giving the Mets a true backup shortstop, behind Francisco Lindor, as well as someone who can play second and third.
Villar, who hasn’t played third base since 2016, started at position in one game last week and continues to rack up reps during pregame drills. Villar could also take an occasional lap in the outfield, where he has played sparingly throughout his career.
“They paid me the money, so if they need me to play in the outfield, I’ll go out,” Villar said. “Whatever position they want me to play, I’ll be ready to play anything. If they want me to play catcher, I will. “
Team officials have liked Davis’ early game at third base. One notable adjustment has been his repositioning to not play as deep, which reduces his chances of being hit on slow rolls in front of him.
But the Mets may also want to find opportunities for Villar’s left-handed bat and see third base as the best option.
“He’s going to get more exposure in third place in camp than McNeil in camp,” Rojas said. “[Villar] and JD will be the top two players at third base and we want to see Mac early in camp playing third and we may see him again. “
While it could be argued that McNeil would be better off concentrating on second base, versatility has value.
“Spring training is for that and just to give [McNeil] a little more exposure and to make sure he feels comfortable and gets back into position, but I think he can play there, ”said Rojas.
McNeil’s opportunities to play in the outfield could be restricted by the additions of Kevin Pillar and Albert Almora Jr. Also, the lack of a universal designated hitter indicates Dominic Smith will start most of the time in left field. But expect McNeil to have a chance on the left before camp concludes, as well as at least another look at the third.
“We want to see the combinations,” said Rojas. “We want to see the different positions and what the guys look like there. It is a win-win every day. We don’t play well defensively today, but you can teach a lot about this and it can definitely tell you what you need to work on.