PORT ST. LUCIE — Jeff McNeil’s hat trick playing third base Sunday — he committed a fielding and throwing error in addition to another on a missed catch — offered a reminder as to why the Mets removed him from the position last season.
Uncomfortable mostly with throws, McNeil moved to left field in 2020 and also saw action at second base, behind Robinson Cano. With Cano suspended for this entire season after testing positive for a banned performance-enhancing drug for the second time, McNeil figures primarily as the second baseman. But there are also questions whether J.D. 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, but if you want to rank his positions I know he is more acclimated playing second base and even left field, but he’s looked well at third base in the past,” Rojas said after the Mets and Marlins played to a 4-4 exhibition tie at Clover Park. “I know we can go back to last year when he struggled a little bit at third as well, but we believe he can play there.”
The more likely Plan B at third base, according to Rojas, is Jonathan Villar, who smashed a three-run homer as the starting second baseman. The veteran Villar arrived this offseason on a one-year contract worth $3.55 million, giving the Mets a true backup shortstop, behind Francisco Lindor, as well as somebody who can play second and third.
Villar, who hasn’t played third base since 2016, started at the position in a game last week and continues to build up reps during pregame drills. Villar could also take an occasional turn in the outfield, where he has played sparingly in his career.
“They paid me the money so if they need me to play outfield, I will go out there,” Villar said. “Whatever position they want me to play I will be ready to play anything. If they want me to play catcher I will do it.”
Team officials have liked Davis’ early play at third base. One noticeable adjustment has been his repositioning so not to play as deep, reducing his chances of getting beaten on slow grounders 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 at third in camp than McNeil will in camp,” Rojas said. “[Villar] and J.D. will be the two that play the most at third base and we want to see Mac early in camp playing third and we may see him again.”
Though there could be an argument made that McNeil would be best served just concentrating on second base, there is a value to versatility.
“Spring training is for that and just to give [McNeil] a little bit more exposure and to make sure that he feels comfortable and he clicks back into the position, but I believe he can play there,” Rojas said.
McNeil’s chances to play outfield could be restricted by the additions of Kevin Pillar and Albert Almora Jr. In addition, the lack of a universal DH signals that Dominic Smith will start most of the time in left field. But expect McNeil to get chances in left before camp concludes, as well as at least another look at third.
“We want to see the combinations,” Rojas said. “We want to see the different positions and how the guys look there. It’s a win-win every day. We didn’t play good defense today, but you can teach a lot from this and it can definitely tell you where you need to work on.”