With both Jeff McNeil and Dominic Smith coming off disappointing 2021 seasons, “there is some expectation within the industry the Mets will trade” at least one of the duo after the lockout, Mike Puma of The New York Post writes. Back in late November, MetsMerized’s Michael Mayer tweeted that “multiple teams” had been in touch with the Mets about a McNeil trade.
Since the Mets bolstered their everyday lineup by signing Starling Marte, Mark Canha, and Eduardo Escobar, there has been plenty of speculation about what the club would do with a suddenly-crowded mix of position players. Between the three new faces and Robinson Cano returning from suspension, McNeil, Smith, and J.D. Davis suddenly looked to be short on regular playing time. Even if the National League does adopt the DH in the next collective bargaining agreement, there might be a greater chance that the free-spending Mets fill that extra lineup spot with another established star, Puma notes.
This is far from the first time that either McNeil or Smith have figured into trade rumors. Smith drew plenty of trade buzz following his big performance (over 197 plate appearances) in 2019, as the Mets’ glut of first base and outfield talent seemed to leave Smith without a position. Injuries and the NL’s use of the DH in 2020 opened up more space for Smith in 2020, however, and he responded with even bigger numbers.
Smith hit a cumulative .299/.366/.571 with 21 home runs in 396 PA in 2019-20, but that production dropped sharply last year, with only a .244/.304/.363 slash line and 11 homers over 493 PA. While Smith benefited from a .368 BABIP in 2020, that number dropped to .298 in 2021, and Smith’s isolated power also dropped from .299 to only .119. Less hard contact in general could be the reason so few of Smith’s flyballs translated to homers or doubles, and rival teams also increased their usages of defensive shifts against the left-handed hitter. After posting big numbers against the shift in 2019-20, Smith only had a .265 wOBA against shifts last season, with teams deploying the shift 60.1% of the time (as per Statcast).
McNeil looked like a future lineup staple over his first three seasons in Queens, highlighted by an All-Star appearance in 2019. However, the super-utilityman also had a lot less batted-ball luck in 2021, with a .280 BABIP following a .342 BABIP from 2018-20. While McNeil continued to be one of the harder players in the league to strike out, he didn’t make much hard contact even in his three good years, which finally caught up to him last season. Injuries may have also been a factor, as McNeil missed over a month of the season due to a strained hamstring.
Beyond just the on-the-field struggles, McNeil also had a highly-publicized altercation with Francisco Lindor on May 7, resulting in Lindor reportedly grabbing McNeil by the throat before teammates pulled the two apart. The incident created some belief that the Mets were simply ready to part ways with McNeil, though naturally the team isn’t going to just give him away for nothing on the trade market.
Both Smith and McNeil are controlled through the 2024 season, with Smith in his second year of salary arbitration (as a Super Two player) and McNeil in his first. Smith is projected to earn $4MM in 2022 and McNeil $2.8MM, and thus both players would be bargains if they could regain their pre-2021 form. Between this controlability and their recent success, Smith and McNeil both still have a solid amount of trade value, even if suitors would have some justifiable question marks in the wake of their respective down years. That said, an argument could be made that either McNeil or Smith might benefit from a change of scenery away from the drama that has swirled around the Mets in recent years.
McNeil is heading into his age-30 season and is over three years older than Smith, but he might have more overall value due to his defensive versatility. McNeil has seen quite a bit of time as a second baseman, third baseman, and corner outfielder over his four years in New York, whereas Smith hasn’t looked good defensively in the outfield and has been only passable at first base. Pete Alonso has Smith blocked at first base, of course, so the DH slot might be Smith’s best shot at getting regular playing time if he does stay with the Mets. In terms of trade interest, teams might not be too willing to part with a premium return for a first base-only player, especially one coming off a lackluster season at the plate.
It stands to reason that moving one of McNeil, Smith, or Davis would help the Mets address other roster needs, but an argument can also be made that the team could or should simply retain that entire trio for the sake of depth. Since injuries and unforeseen issues like Cano’s suspension left the Mets so shorthanded in 2021, figuring out ways to raise the talent floor should be a priority for new GM Billy Eppler. Also, new manager Buck Showalter is no stranger to figuring out ways to juggle playing time and maximize the skills of every player on his roster.