Take a glance at the hottest hitters across all the full-season circuits in 2018 and you'll see some very familiar names. No. 1 overall prospectVladimir Guerrero Jr. leads the pack with an uncanny .404 batting average as he works his way back from injury, while top Dodgers farmhand Alex Verdugo boasts an impressive .350 mark at the Minors' highest level.
Also among the top 10, however, is a name that few would've expected to be there at the beginning of the year: the Mets' Jeff McNeil, a six-year pro. The Triple-A Las Vegas infielder is not a ranked prospect, but he's tearing the cover off the ball.
Healthy after a slew of injuries slowed his development for nearly two seasons, the 26-year-old is breaking out at the plate with a .348 average and a career-high 19 home runs across two levels.
"I've always been a decent hitter, but I'm a lot stronger this year," McNeil said. "Now that I'm a little stronger and playing in more hitter-friendly parks, the balls I'm hitting are going over the fence. I knew if I was strong and healthy, the baseball would take care of itself."
Whatever concerns critics have about his age should be put to rest by his consistent level of play this year in the Double-A Eastern League and Pacific Coast League, according to No. 2 Mets prospect Peter Alonso, one of McNeil's biggest fans.
"It's important to do well and show people, because they're like, 'Oh, he's 26 or whatever,'" Alonso said. "I think that's a load of crap. It's just unfortunate that things happen to some people, and he's been super-resilient last year and now this year. He's been healthy and I hope and he finishes out the season completely healthy. He's having a hell of a year. It's been really fun to watch. It's been awesome playing with him.
"The thing about baseball, people think age matters, but it really doesn't. You've got guys in the big leagues right now that are 19 and guys that are like 40 and have a wife and kids and stuff like that. It doesn't matter how old, big, strong and fast you are. You've just got to perform -- that's it."
Past the midpoint of the season, McNeil has clearly exceeded expectations. Although he's played just 26 PCL games, McNeil has wowed 51s manager Tony DeFrancesco -- both at the plate and in the field.
"I think [what stands out] is his ability to swing the bat and give quality at-bats day in and day out," DeFrancesco said. "So far I'm really impressed with the way he's progressed with the bat. Defensively, he's been playing second base and he's been showing some speed and quickness. … His swing does have some power to it to all fields. He kind of reminds me of Daniel Murphy, kind of that same type of moving around to second base, first base and the power came late."
Strengthening his case
Selected out of Long Beach State in the 12th round of the 2013 Draft, McNeil acclimated to pro ball quickly, hitting .329 with an .822 OPS in 47 games with Rookie-level Kingsport that summer. After earning a trip to the Class A South Atlantic League All-Star Game in his first full season, he spent the rest of the year with Class A Advanced St. Lucie. He opened 2015 there and was named a Florida State League All-Star, too.
With three seasons with an average above .290 under his belt, McNeil was primed for a big year with Double-A Binghamton in 2016. Indeed, he went deep in his second at-bat of the season. But after three games, McNeil learned he had a double sports hernia that required surgery and would keep him off the field at least until the summer. Soon after that, it was discovered that he also had a torn labrum. The second surgery sidelined him for the entire year.
In 2017, McNeil returned but never felt fully healthy or as strong as he was before the injuries. Limited to 48 games between St. Lucie and Las Vegas, he still amassed a .295/.351/.432 slash line.
The numbers were more than respectable, but McNeil understood that his biggest challenge coming into 2018 was finding a regimen that would keep him on the field from April through September. After all, he hadn't played as many as 50 games in a season since 2015. He set out on an offseason plan that involved more personal training focused on keeping his body in shape for the long run.
"It was tough, having one [surgery] right after the other, especially when I was supposed to come back and play," he said. "So I ended up missing a whole year. And last year it was tough. [I] had injuries that were probably related to the labrum and hernias -- it was my quad. It was kind of weak. So that was kind of tough and frustrating to go through all that. But I'm all good now, feeling good and that's behind me."
But his rehab forced him to build strength -- more than he'd had before the injuries. He knew the extra muscle might come in handy in the hitter-friendly parks across the upper levels of the Mets system.
In his first month with Binghamton, McNeil crushed four home runs and sported a .994 OPS. But he was just getting started. Over 28 games in May, McNeil smacked eight homers, collected 27 RBIs and broke through with a 1.067 OPS. He even completed his first career cycle and then homered in four straight games within the span of a week.
With 12 long balls through the first two months, McNeil had already eclipsed the career total of nine he brought into the season. He didn't make any wholesale changes at the dish -- other than small tweaks here and there with Rumble Ponies hitting coach Val Pascucci, McNeil largely kept his swing intact. But, according to Fangraphs, McNeil increased his fly ball rate to 49.7 percent in the Eastern League this season.
"I'm taking a little bit bigger swings and trying to drive the ball instead of playing in St. Lucie or Savannah, where you hit one really well and it'll most likely be caught," McNeil said. "The approach is a little bit different in those kind of ballparks. You're trying to hit the ball a little bit more on a line. In Vegas and Binghamton, you just look for a good pitch in the middle and try to hit it far. It'll go."
But McNeil was not a one-man show in Binghamton. Alonso was having his own breakthrough campaign, staying neck-and-neck with McNeil in the home run and OPS departments. Before games, the two had mini hitting contests and their own version of a home run derby.
"It's not like a competition against each other. It's just motivation," Alonso said. "It's just friendly motivation. It's being good teammates. He kind of gives me a tough time, like joking around, and I give it back. One thing he'll say is that all my home runs are wind-blown. We just mess around with each other, and I give it back and tell him he's an old man or whatever. It's all fun and games and friendly competition between me and him."
Having been teammates at three separate levels over the last two years, the duo has gotten close and learned one another's secrets.
"Jeff McNeil likes The Lizzie McGuire Movie," Alonso said. "I'm going to leave it at that. … I figured it out rooming with him this past road trip."
But McNeil was belting out more than tunes from a Hilary Duff flick, and so was Alonso. They consistently held some of the best slugging numbers in the Eastern League, and they were promoted to Triple-A in the middle of June.
McNeil, a California native, was more than happy to take the flight out to the desert. Closer to his family, he was within driving distance of his childhood home and his wife, Tatiana.
"I get to go home, see my wife and hang out with the family a little bit," he said. "It's nice having my family come out and watch me play in Vegas. … It's been tough for my family to come across the country to see me play, but playing the PCL, they should be able to make a few more appearances."
Through 26 PCL games, McNeil holds a .390 average with 16 extra-base hits and a 1.093 OPS. While he admits his fly-ball percentage has dipped since coming to the highest level of the Minors, he's still getting adjusted to the more refined pitchers of the league.
"In Triple-A, I'm hitting the ball on the ground a little bit," he said. "Pitchers are trying to sink the ball. They're basically trying to make you do that, so I'm changing my approach in Triple-A a little bit to try to hit the ball in the air. It's been working so far."
"Yes, great, the ball travels a little bit better [in Las Vegas] than in the Eastern League where it's snowing for a month," Alonso added. "You still have to be a complete hitter. You still have to be good at what you do."
As Alonso also noted, McNeil is not one to speak about his own accomplishments or boast about his stat line. He keeps his nose to the grindstone, looking to improve his approach at the plate and keep up his versatility in the field. As it stands, McNeil has played 69 games this season at second base, 11 at third and three at shortstop. He's logged over 1,200 innings at second and third in his career and also has experience at all three outfield positions, where he regularly takes fly balls.
DeFrancesco sees McNeil's plug-and-play ability as a huge positive for the organization.
"I think for his own growth, with the way the Major League team values these super-utility guys, I think he might be able to fit in one of those roles," the skipper said. "He can definitely play corner outfield and he's played all over the infield. That helps his versatility."
While he hasn't let it affect his performance, McNeil admitted that the thought of a promotion to the Majors has been weighing on his mind in recent days. He doesn't know when he'll get the call, but he's certain he'll be prepared when he gets it.
"Oh yeah, I think about it all the time," he said. "I know, one move, that anything can happen and I can be up. I'm just trying to stay ready and when it happens, hopefully, I'll be up there playing well."
If and when McNeil does get the nod to play at the highest level, it'll be hard to find a more vocal supporter than Alonso.
"I hope they call him up. He deserves it no matter what way you look at it," the first baseman said. "He's worked his way back to be healthy and he's making a statement this year. I'm super-pumped for him. He deserves any sort of credit, and people should be excited for him."
Andrew Battifarano is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter, @AndrewAtBatt.