The New York Mets have a litany of questions to answer in the final month of the season and into the offseason. This goes beyond David Wright having to shut down his rehab, Michael Conforto’s shoulder injury, the questions surrounding the injured pitchers, their offensive and defensive issues, and how they plan to fill their holes.
A decision must be made on what to do with certain players who have been healthy, have use, but are not established to the degree that they can be automatically counted on. Wilmer Flores epitomizes this conundrum.
Life would be far easier for the Mets if Flores had reached his ceiling, leveled off, and they knew with relative certainty what he is. It’s not assured he has done that.
Flores has been with the Mets organization since his 15th birthday, made an impression as a 17-year-old who was called up to play a spring training game with the big club for a day sparking “Who is this kid?” queries, and has evolved into a streaky and likable power bat in the majors. It’s easy to forget that he just turned 26 and there’s plenty of time for him to mature and evolve.
While there is significant upside with Flores, there are negatives that, objectively, cannot be ignored. His defense is suspect wherever he plays, he runs like he has a training parachute strapped to his back 24/7, and he’s streaky.
The Mets have not helped matters when developing him. In 2015, they shoehorned him in at shortstop, a position for which he was ill-suited. He caught just about everything he got to and, overall, performed admirably enough considering the circumstances. However, placing an offense-first player at such a key defensive spot is a recipe for, at best, inconsistency. At worst, it’s disastrous.
Perhaps the concerns were overblown since the 2015 Mets won the pennant, but putting players in a situation at which their window for success is only slightly open leaves little margin for error. With Flores, there will be plenty of errors.
As it stands, the Mets have four viable options.
Put him at a position and leave him there
Flores made two more errors at third base in Tuesday’s 14-4 loss to the Cincinnati Reds, one fielding and one throwing. Like his foray at shortstop, no one is expecting Gold Glove defense anywhere he plays. Despite the occasional “clank” sound when the ball hits his glove, that glove itself is serviceable enough wherever he plays – even when he played shortstop. He catches most everything he gets to, but given that he’s so slow afoot, there is a limit to the number of balls he will reach. The issue at positions other than third and first is his range. He doesn’t have any. But that’s something a team can live with if he catches the balls he can reach and his throws are true.
And therein lies another problem: he’s scatter-armed.
Arm strength is not lacking – he simply misses his target. While frustrating, this is solvable. If he’s playing second base, it’s a shorter, less troublesome throw. At third, it’s a matter of mechanics and mentality. With T.J. Rivera and Wright injured, Neil Walker traded and Jose Reyes’ days at third base apparently over, this is an opportunity to let Flores play a position – either second or third – and leave him there for the remainder of the season so he can grow comfortable and the club can work on his flaws.
Moving him all over now does more harm than good. So if they view him as a possible second baseman, he needs to play there with Asdrubal Cabrera (if he’s not traded) at third, or vice versa. Only then can there be a legitimate gauge on his best (or least damaging) defensive position.
Use him as a rotating utility player basically every day
The Mets did a micro version of what they could conceivably do with Flores when they were forced to play Travis d’Arnaud at third base and moved him mid-game to wherever he was least likely to have a ball hit in his direction. For one night, it worked.
They’re not doing that with Flores because it’s too complicated to do every game and is embarrassing to a player who, by 2018, will have reached nominal veteran status. They can look at the opposing club beforehand and shift Flores between second and third – the two positions where there are likely openings – and use him in that manner. For other games such as when Flores is playing first against a tough lefty or – dare it be said? – he sees some time in left field when Yoenis Cespedes is resting, he can easily play in 140 games and get his 550 plate appearances.
The club will need to swallow the inevitable defensive lapses in exchange for the 25 to 30 home runs he will hit as an everyday player.
Keep him in his current role
Flores is streaky, and the Mets have benched him as they looked at Rivera and moved Walker, Cabrera and Reyes all over the field.
With some justification, Flores is growing frustrated with his lack of regular playing time. To a degree, the Mets have jerked him around, playing him behind a former non-prospect like Rivera and sitting him for extended periods with no real reason for doing so. Having just turned 26 and proven that he can hit for power against big league pitching, it’s natural for him to want to get the opportunity to come to the park every day knowing he’ll be in the starting lineup at a position that is not shortstop so he does not have to carry concerns about his defense around like they’re eternal chains of punishment. He’s at the stage of his career where he wants to show what he can do without looking over his shoulder and sitting for weeks at a time. If the Mets continue to do that, they will never maximize him. If that is their intent, the preferable move for him and them is to …
If Flores didn’t have the potential he does, this would be an easier decision. There are two positions for which Flores is ideally suited: designated hitter and first base. For the Mets, the first one isn’t an option because, obviously, there’s no DH in the National League. The second isn’t an option because their second-best prospect, Dominic Smith, is already in the majors and is preparing to permanently take over first base in 2018. Even if the Mets sit Smith against the toughest lefties, that will not be sufficient playing time for Flores.
Flores has value on the trade market. He’s under team control for two more seasons, he’s acknowledged as a good kid, and an unshackled Flores could blossom into a top-tier home run hitter. He doesn’t walk much, but he doesn’t strike out a lot either. If his holes – notably his defense – are mitigated by DHing or playing first base, his value increases. Another team could place greater emphasis on what he does well than the Mets can and do.
When he signed as a teen and made his brief appearance in spring training at 17, he was a tall, gangly kid. He has filled out to 6-foot-3 and is listed at 205 pounds. Approaching his late-20s, more bulking is likely. Eventually, Flores will reach 225 or 230 pounds. His speed certainly won’t be affected since he doesn’t have any, but his offense will. By then, it’s reasonable to expect him to hook enough inside pitches around the left-field foul pole to hit 35 and even 40 home runs as a pure, two-fisted slugger.
This should be the Mets’ fear. The last thing they need is to trade Flores only to see him become the latest Daniel Murphy or Justin Turner and explode as soon as he’s away from them.
In their current circumstance, the Mets have an array of alternatives. Making the wrong choice with Flores can hinder and haunt them for years, but it’s time to decide. Sticking him at one position for the remainder of 2017 and playing him every single day is the only logical place to start.