Stay or Go: Should Mets bring Jeff McNeil back for 2022?

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Jeff McNeil treated art, sunglasses on preparing to throw 2021
Jeff McNeil treated art, sunglasses on preparing to throw 2021

For the first three seasons of Jeff McNeil's Mets career, he looked like a natural hitter who would be a perennial challenger for the batting title.

McNeil took the league by storm in 2018, was an All-Star in 2019, and had another strong season during the pandemic-shortened campaign in 2020.

The 2021 season was different.

As he was limited to 120 games due to a hamstring injury that he suffered in May, McNeil slashed just .249/.317/.358 -- an alarming downturn after slashing .319/.383/.501 over his first three seasons.

McNeil, who is always hard on himself after at-bats that end without him reaching base, took it up another notch in 2021 as his frustration mounted.

And when you take McNeil's career-low .276 BABIP into account while diving into his other advanced numbers (more on that below), it seems he was the benefit of some bad luck in 2021.

Of course, McNeil wasn't alone when it came to Mets hitters who struggled this past season.

Michael Conforto slumped so badly that he was briefly benched in August, Dominic Smith had a down year after excelling in 2019 and 2020, James McCann regressed in what was the first year of a four-year contract, and Francisco Lindor looked nothing like himself for the first two months of the season before righting the ship.

Sep 5, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor (12) celebrates with left fielder Jeff McNeil (6) after the game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park.
Sep 5, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor (12) celebrates with left fielder Jeff McNeil (6) after the game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park.

And with the Mets likely to shake up the roster heading into Year 2 of Steve Cohen's ownership in 2022 and not many players guaranteed spots, it's fair to wonder if McNeil's place on the roster is safe.

What happens with McNeil could be impacted in a big way by the kind of moves the Mets make in free agency, especially when it comes to corner outfield and third base.

But as we'll outline below, the case for keeping McNeil is much more logical than the case for letting him go.

So, what should the Mets do?

WHY IT COULD MAKE SENSE FOR MCNEIL TO GO

One of the most glaring issues for McNeil in 2021 was his lack of power.

He hit just seven homers in 386 at-bats after hitting only four in 183 at-bats in 2020,

The only season where McNeil flashed serious thump was 2019, when he sacrificed a bit of contact for power and had a career-high 23 jacks.

But power is not the name of McNeil's game. Rather, he is someone who will line the ball to all fields as he serves as a primary table-setter.

Jul 26, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets third baseman Jeff McNeil (6) hits a single during the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Citi Field.
Jul 26, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets third baseman Jeff McNeil (6) hits a single during the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Citi Field.

A look at McNeil's advanced numbers in 2021 shows a bit of a mixed bag.

He was among the best in the league when it came to strikeout rate and whiff percentage, a bit above average in xBA and max exit velocity, and average in max exit velocity.

But McNeil was well below average when it came to barreling up balls, walk rate, hard hit percentage, xwOBA, and average exit velocity.

If you're of the belief that what befell McNeil in 2021 is a sign of things to come, an easy argument can be made to move on.

But moving on now would mean trading McNeil with his value at its lowest, and potentially giving up on someone who is due for a big bounce back.

WHY IT COULD MAKE SENSE FOR MCNEIL TO STAY

As noted above, it seems likely that McNeil could bounce back in 2022, with the 2021 campaign fading away and being remembered as an aberration.

While McNeil's advanced numbers in 2021 weren't great, some of it had to do with who McNeil has always been as a hitter. And some of it had to do with struggles in some very specific situations.

For example, McNeil is never going to be someone who walks a ton. He is not Brandon Nimmo.

And a look at McNeil's walk rate in 2021 shows that it was in line with his career rate of just under 7.0 percent. Similarly, McNeil's strikeout rate of 9.6 percent was just a tick higher than it was during his All-Star season in 2019 (9.2 percent).

Much of what did McNeil in this past season was what happened when he put the ball in play, and as is noted above, some of that can be attributed to bad luck.

McNeil's hard hit rate in 2021 (28.9 percent) dropped, but not at an alarming rate -- it was 30.9 percent in 2020.

Jul 28, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets second baseman Jeff McNeil (6) follows through on an RBI single against the Atlanta Braves during the third inning at Citi Field.
Jul 28, 2021; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets second baseman Jeff McNeil (6) follows through on an RBI single against the Atlanta Braves during the third inning at Citi Field.

Part of McNeil's down season was due to how poorly he hit against fastballs (this was a team-wide issue), with his slashing a meager .253 with a .349 slugging percentage against them after hitting .354 with a .521 slugging against fastballs in 2020.

And McNeil's struggles against fastballs in 2021 should be easily correctable in 2022, unless you think his bat speed has vanished at the age of 29 (it hasn't).

Meanwhile, McNeil continued to spread the ball to all fields while his line drive rate, fly ball rate, and ground ball rate were all around his career norms.

And if you're expecting a rebound year from McNeil in 2022, there are other factors that make it a no-brainer to bring him back.

The first is McNeil's versatility, with him able to play third base, second base, left field, and right field all at an average level.

McNeil can play second base for the Mets if they don't retain Javier Baez, third base if they don't add a big free agent, and either left or right field if Conforto leaves via free agency.

McNeil is also under team control through the 2024 season and is still relatively inexpensive, due to make just $2.8 million in 2022.

VERDICT

The Mets need to keep McNeil. It's as simple as that.