The Mets have signed each of Starling Marte, Eduardo Escobar and Mark Canha to multi-year contracts this offseason. They’re also set to welcome Robinson Canó back from a performance-enhancing drug suspension that cost him his entire 2021 campaign. The influx of players who weren’t available to the Mets last year reshuffled the offensive group and led to plenty of speculation about the future of some in-house options.
Specifically, Jeff McNeil, Dominic Smith and J.D. Davis have been oft-mentioned trade candidates. It’s still theoretically possible any of that trio finds themselves on the move, but first-year manager Buck Showalter told reporters this afternoon that he envisioned McNeil as the club’s primary second baseman this season.
Regarding whether he planned to divide second base duties between McNeil and Canó, Showalter said he viewed it as the former’s job. “I don’t think it will be split. Mac will get the majority [of playing time] there,” he said (via Tim Healey of Newsday). Asked about Canó’s role, Showalter replied “I think Robbie knows he’s not going to play second base for us as much as he wants to. But we hope he’s not a pure DH either. There’s the potential for him to play some first base if needed. I wouldn’t put him in the outfield.”
Obviously, the presence of Canó and Escobar would give the Mets options at second base were they to entertain trading McNeil over the coming weeks. Yet Showalter’s comments suggest it’s likelier he’ll remain in Queens and pick up the bulk of the playing time at the keystone. Projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz for just a $2.8MM salary this season and controllable through 2024 via arbitration, the 29-year-old McNeil could remain in Flushing for a while if the Mets elect to keep him around.
McNeil didn’t debut in the majors until his age-26 season, but he hit the ground running. His excellent bat-to-ball skills translated to the game’s highest level, and he posted a .319/.383/.501 mark in a bit more than 1000 plate appearances over his first three MLB seasons. Yet while McNeil continued to make plenty of contact last season, his results on batted balls went backwards. The lefty hitter has never been a huge power threat, but last year’s .109 ISO (slugging minus batting average) was easily a career worst. His batting average on balls in play — which had been north of .330 in each of his first three seasons — fell to .280. As a result, McNeil posted below-average offensive numbers (.251/.319/.360 with seven homers in 426 plate appearances) for the first time in his career.
Trading McNeil this winter might’ve been a sell-low move. It’d certainly behoove the win-now Mets if they held onto him and he regained his 2018-20 form. Escobar, who’s coming off a .253/.314/.472 showing between the Diamondbacks and Brewers, seems like he’ll primarily factor in at third base. That’d leave Canó bouncing between second base, first base and designated hitter, although he’s unlikely to be the top option at any of those positions.
Pete Alonso will obviously hold down first. If McNeil takes second with Escobar at third most days, that’d push both Davis and Smith into the corner outfield/DH mix. With a presumptive primary outfield of Canha, Marte and Brandon Nimmo, each of Davis, Smith and Canó could find themselves jostling for playing time if they’re all on the roster.
Davis and Smith would figure to have a decent amount of trade appeal, but it’s hard to envision New York finding a taker for Canó. He’s still due $48MM through 2023 ($24MM in each season). Releasing him wouldn’t save the Mets any money, though, so there’s little reason not to gauge the 39-year-old’s form if he’s willing to take on a bat-first role off the bench. It’s difficult to know whether he has anything left in the tank at his age and coming off a 162-game PED ban, but Canó didn’t show any signs of slowing down when last permitted to take the field. The eight-time All-Star hit .316/.352/.544 in 182 trips to the plate during the shortened 2020 season.