What Jeff McNeil's extension could mean for Mets, Pete Alonso
On the field last year the Mets closed the gap with the Atlanta Braves to the tiniest of margins, and now they’ve made a very Braves-like move in the boardroom as well, signing Jeff McNeil to a team-friendly contract extension.
Indeed, locking up the National League batting champ for four-years and $50 million is a deal similar to what Atlanta has done with several of their young stars, all but assuring themselves of being a force to be dealt with for years in the NL East.
As such, it’s another indication the Steve Cohen regime is making all the right moves toward building a sustainable championship-caliber organization, which the owner has stated to be his long-term goal.
With a handful of blue-chip position-player prospects on the horizon, and perhaps some quality pitching prospects following them, the Mets should be in a position within a few years to contend for a championship without Cohen needing to outspend everyone in baseball.
That’s their hope, anyway, and we’ll see if their scouting and player development system is up to the task.
If so, the McNeil extension could be evidence that Cohen’s front office will be proactive in locking up a Francisco Alvarez to a long-term deal if he lives up to the hype as a can’t-miss slugging catcher.
More significantly, for the moment, McNeil’s new deal also offers reason to believe the Mets are working toward getting Pete Alonso to agree to a long-term contract as well, even if it’s sure to come at a much higher price.
As McNeil was, Alonso is two seasons away from reaching free agency. But as one of the premier power-hitters in baseball, with 130 home runs in his three full seasons in the big leagues (plus 16 more in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season), the big first baseman has the leverage to command a lot more money.
Consider that Austin Riley, the Braves’ power-hitting third baseman, signed a 10-year, $212 million deal last August. Alonso, who turned 28 in December, is two years older than Riley but has averaged eight more home runs in the full seasons they’ve played.
Throw in the added leverage Alonso has as the Mets’ only true slugger, at least until Alvarez proves otherwise, and the fact that he’s already making $14.5 million this season. He’ll certainly be looking for more than the $21 million a year Riley is getting.
Perhaps most noteworthy, Alonso will reach free agency going into his age-30 season, young enough for a power hitter to be considered very much in his prime. And that’s a key difference as well between him and McNeil.
The second baseman turns 31 in April so he would have been going into his age-33 season by the time he reached free agency. That three-year difference likely was an important factor in McNeil signing a contract that baseball people I spoke with agreed was something of a bargain deal for the Mets.
“I have to believe the age was the key to him being willing to do this deal,” one team executive told me. “He got started at a relatively late age, he had a down year in ’21, so the path to a big payday probably wasn’t as clear as it would be for someone like Alonso.
“So he probably looked a guaranteed $50 million as too much to pass up with two years to go (until free agency). And he’s not a power guy, which is a factor too. But I still think he sold himself a little short, considering how valuable he was to that team as a high-average hitter and a plus-defender at second base and the outfield too. That combination has a lot of value. Great deal for the Mets.”
A long-time scout agreed.
“Once he committed himself to hitting the ball to all fields and not trying to pull for power as he did for a year or so,” the scout said. “He became a really tough out again. He’s not afraid to hit with two strikes because he’s got such great bat-to-ball skills and he’s so good at taking a tough outside-corner pitch to the opposite field.
“If he stays committed to that approach he should be a .300-plus hitter for at least the next few years. And he hits good pitching. I would have thought he’d get five or six years, so you have to like it for the Mets.”
Yes, what’s not to like? Mets people are convinced McNeil will continue to be a consistent .300 hitter after bouncing back from his .251 season that both team and player believe had much to do with the analytics-overload the organization forced upon its hitters in 2021 before going back to a more balanced approach under hitting coach Eric Chavez.
As McNeil explained late in the ’22 season, “I was going to the plate last year thinking way too much about the pitcher’s tendencies and things like that. This year I went back to just looking for a good pitch to hit and putting a good swing on it. I got my confidence back.”
It showed when it counted most, as McNeil was clutch last season. In addition to his league-leading .326 average, he hit .336 with runners in scoring position and .308 with RISP/two outs.
All of which made for such an impressive season that he was recently ranked as the No. 2 second baseman in the majors by MLB Network, behind only Jose Altuve.
So how could he sign a team-friendly extension? Maybe McNeil, once a 12th-round draft choice, simply wanted the security of such life-changing money rather than waiting for free agency, knowing his age could work against him.
Whatever the case, the Mets were smart to do a Braves-like deal with a difference-making player. They probably just shouldn’t expect Alonso to do the same.