NEW YORK – Jeff McNeil knows the stomach-drop feeling of walking into the clubhouse, glancing at that day’s lineup and being caught off guard when his name wasn’t there.
“Oh yeah, it’s definitely happened,” said the New York Mets’ All-Star infielder and outfielder.
Happily for him, it’s an experience big leaguers are having less and less. At a time when ball clubs are valuing lineup versatility like never before, the communication between managers and players over who is playing — and at which position — has taken on greater importance.
“I tell them everything I know," first-year Mets manager Buck Showalter said.
Part-time players Robinson Canó, Dominic Smith and J.D. Davis have full-time talents and resumes, but working them into the lineup requires near-constant shuffling by Showalter. McNeil needs to know if he's playing second base or left field, depending on if Canó is headed toward the keystone. Smith can spell Pete Alonso at first, pushing the Polar Bear to designated hitter. J.D. Davis plays left field and third base, meaning he might displace one of several teammates.
And with the designated hitter going universal this year, the National League club has another slot that needs to be filled each day. Showalter has already used seven players there.
Yet, Mets players say there hasn’t been any game-day surprises from Showalter.
“Most of the time, you know exactly what’s going to happen before it does,” backup infielder Luis Guillorme said. “You’re not getting ambushed with anything.”
Of course, there are limits to what a manager can map out. The Mets experienced that last week, when Nimmo and Canha were game-time decisions for several days in a row while on the COVID-19 injured list.
“If you want to hear God laugh, tell him about your plans," Showalter said. “I’m looking forward to things kind of settling in at some point."
Players say Showalter either catches up with them in the clubhouse after games, or plans will be communicated via messages to their phones each night that also include report times and other schedule notes for the next day’s game.
“I want them to know everything so they’re not wondering about it or reading something wondering if it’s completely right,” Showalter said.
It’s been much the same across town at Yankee Stadium, where manager Aaron Boone says the Bronx Bombers are setting their lineups further ahead than ever. New York started the season with five infielders for four spots — Anthony Rizzo, DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa — and Boone wants them to know their role for a given day before they show up to work.
“I do think they like that," Boone said. "So far, we’ve been getting the lineup out to them before the end of the night for the next day, and we’ll try to do that as much as we can.”
It’s not just a matter of mental preparation, either. Guillorme has been a part-time player over five big league seasons, and he’s ironed out different programs for when he’s playing and when he’s not.
“My routine is going to be a lot more toned down if I know I’m playing or if I’m not. If I know I’m not playing, if I’m in the role that I am usually, I do a lot more stuff on the field before the game,” he said. “If that day I’m going to play, I tone it down. I go through a regular routine of just normal, because I don’t want to be tired by that time. So for me, when they give me a heads up, yes it does help me a lot.”
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