Notes: McNeil, Conforto's return on horizon

June 8th, 2021

BALTIMORE -- One Mets All-Star position player is edging closer to a return. Another might not be far behind.

Second baseman Jeff McNeil will begin a Minor League rehab stint this weekend, according to manager Luis Rojas, which would put McNeil on track for a return well before the end of the month. And while the Mets don’t have a similar timeline for outfielder Michael Conforto, who is also nursing a hamstring strain, Conforto indicated he could go on assignment by the middle of the month. That would line him up to return before July.

“All I’m focused on is getting back being healthy,” Conforto said from Camden Yards, where he took batting practice on Tuesday alongside his teammates.

Unlike Conforto, McNeil is not currently on the road with the Mets. When the team arrives home this weekend, McNeil will travel to Syracuse to begin a rehab assignment with their Triple-A affiliate, which will mark McNeil’s first game action since he strained his left hamstring during a May 16 game in Tampa Bay.

“He responded really well to treatment, and he progressed well,” Rojas said. “We’re pretty optimistic with him rehabbing and meeting us down the road.”

Conforto left that same game due to a right hamstring strain. He has worked on strengthening his leg muscles since that time, while also regularly swinging a bat. But Conforto, unlike McNeil, has not completed the sprinting progression he must finish before the Mets send him on assignment.

Even if Conforto does return by the end of June, he will have missed more than a month from what he hoped would be a career year heading into free agency -- a thought that one of the most valuable Mets from last season has since shoved out of his head.

“You think about all that stuff when it happens,” Conforto said. “As soon as it popped, I understood what that meant: I was going to miss time. But then you just switch your focus to getting back on the field.”

With McNeil and Conforto absent, the Mets have relied heavily on veterans José Peraza and Billy McKinney at second base and in right field, respectively. McKinney in particular has a chance to stick around once the Mets grow healthier, as he has impressed team officials with his power, speed, and defensive versatility.

From elsewhere in the trainer’s room

The Mets’ bench is about to become whole, too. Outfielder Albert Almora Jr. began a rehab assignment Tuesday at Syracuse, joining infielder Luis Guillorme there.

Almora had not played since crashing into the center-field fence at Citi Field on May 11. He will need a full ramp-up with Syracuse, progressing from five- to seven- and finally nine-inning appearances in the outfield. When Almora does return -- likely at some point next week -- he will supplant someone from a crowded outfield mix that currently includes Dominic Smith, Kevin Pillar, McKinney and Mason Williams. Williams’ roster spot is the most vulnerable.

Guillorme is tentatively scheduled to spend three more days on assignment and join the Mets either Friday or Saturday in New York. He’ll likely replace Travis Blankenhorn on the roster.

Who’s on first?

Given the benefit of a designated hitter this week at Camden Yards, the Mets used the rule as an opportunity to remove Pete Alonso from the field and start James McCann at first base. That allowed the Mets to field a lineup that included both those two and hot-hitting backup catcher Tomás Nido.

Rojas was able to do so mostly because of how natural McCann has looked at first base -- a position he had never played as a professional until last month, but that he often spent time practicing before games throughout his career. Rojas went as far as to say that limiting McCann’s catching duties may have played a role in his offensive breakout -- a .367/.387/.867 slash line over his most recent eight games heading into Tuesday’s play.

“I pride myself on being a baseball player, being athletic,” McCann said. “I’m not saying I can go run and play center field and do that with the best of them, but that’s something that I do take a lot of pride in is understanding the movements of other positions, understanding the basics of each position, and being able to step up at a time when our team needs it.”