Mets promoting long-touted prospect Wilmer Flores to play shortstop
Amid a 1-6 slide punctuated by back-to-back shutouts at the hands of Marlins pitchers not named Jose Fernandez, the Mets are hungry for offense — hungry enough that they're willing to give up some defense in hopes of improving. To wit, they've called up prospect Wilmer Flores to take over shortstop, a position he outgrew a few years ago but one occupied by their lineup's weakest link, Ruben Tejada.
The 22-year-old Flores is technically a rookie, but he did play 27 games for the Mets late last year, filling in at third base during a David Wright stint on the disabled list. He started off respectably, going 15-for-50 with a .753 OPS in his first 14 games, but fell into a 5-for-45 slump with less regular play to finish at .211/.248/.295 in 101 plate appearances. He has one major league appearance this year, going 0-for-4 when he was called up amid second baseman Daniel Murphy's paternity leave in early April.
Those numbers aren't much to write home about, but his mere arrival did represent a significant plateau in the career of a player who was signed out of Venezuela in 2007. Flores burst on the scene the following year, hitting .310/.352/.490 at the rookie-level Appalachian League as a 16-year-old shortstop, and briefly tasting the New York-Penn and South Atlantic Leagues. That showing led Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus to place him in the middle of their top prospect lists (No. 47 for the former, 54 for the latter), but as Flores continued to play against much older competition, his flaws were exposed and his progress slowed. He spent all of 2009-11 at various levels of A-ball, and his stock dropped due to an overly aggressive approach at the plate and clear limitations on the defensive side. From Baseball Prospectus 2012:
"Even more troubling is what he does in the field. He's growing, and there's been some significant thickening of his frame. There's no way he'll remain an up-the-middle player for long, and with first base or a corner outfield slot his most likely destination, it's time for the bat to start playing."
In 2012, the Mets split Flores' time between second and third base, and between High-A Port St. Lucie and Double-A Binghamton. His power materialized; he homered 18 times while batting .300/.349/.479. Concentrating mostly on second base, he followed that up by batting .321/.357/.531 with 15 homers at Triple-A Las Vegas (one of the minors' most hitter-friendly environments) before his late-season recall; his performance netted him the 71st spot among BP's Top 101 Prospects, the first time in three years he'd cracked the list.
With Wright signed to a long-term deal and Murphy playing a passible (and affordable) second base while ranking among the club's few offensive assets, the Mets decided to try Flores at shortstop again due to their ongoing dissatisfaction with the 24-year-old Tejada. After debuting in 2010, Tejada hit a respectable .287/.345/.345 while producing 4.1 WAR in 210 games from 2011-12, but he's fallen apart since then, producing a combined -1.7 WAR in just 96 games. Last year, he slumped to .202/.259/.260 in 57 games amid ongoing questions about his work ethic, a demotion to Triple-A and injuries, including a season-ending fracture of his right fibula in September. The story hasn't improved this year; through 98 plate appearances, he's hitting just 183/.302/.207, with the lowest OPS among Mets regulars. At that, he's hardly the only one in the .500s; outfielders Curtis Granderson (.570) and Eric Young Jr. (.576) and catcher Travis d'Arnaud (.590) have stunk on ice as well.
As a team, the Mets' 3.97 runs per game is within a whisker of the NL average (3.98), but their .225/.300/.332 slashline places them 13th, 12th and 14th in those three categories and suggests that they're lucky to be scoring as often as they have. To be fair, the team was 15-11 through the end of April, but they dropped six of seven on a road trip to Colorado and Miami, scoring all of three runs in three games at the latter stop, including the back-to-back shutouts.
With backup shortstop Omar Quintanilla not likely to help — the career .220/.287/.290 "hitter" was designated for assignment to open up roster space — promoting Flores is a way to add a bit of punch to the lineup, but even the Mets' front office admits that they don't expect him to become the next Andrelton Simmons. Via Newsday's Marc Carig, assistant general manager John Ricco said of his work this year at Vegas:
"All the reports we're getting from there is he's making all the routine plays… He's not going to be a plus defender by any stretch, but he's held his own defensively."
While hardly dismissive of his upside with the bat, prospect experts aren't so optimistic about his ability to pass at shortstop. The Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2014 (where he was ranked sixth among Mets prospects) noted that "he lacks any semblance of first-stop quickness, though his hands are sure and his arm is strong enough for any infield post." Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks ranked Flores third on the team's top 10 list and similarly lauded his soft hands and footwork around the bag at second base but noted that his "range isn't sufficient for shortstop." MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo was more succinct in this Twitter exchange with Mets pregame radio host Pete McCarthy:
Even with Murphy and Lucas Duda manning two of the infield posts, the Mets' .692 defensive efficiency is right at the league average, and Flores' chances to get by at the position will be helped by the orientation of the Mets' staff. Via FanGraphs, the team has the NL's third-lowest groundball rate (44.5 percent), with Zach Wheeler (28th in the league at 52.2 percent) and Jenrry Mejia (34th in the league at 51.1 percent) the only two Mets starters significantly above that. Manager Terry Collins could still choose to spot Tejada there if he wants extra defensive support, and he can spot Flores at first, second or third if he wants to give him a break from the shortstop grind. In the end, sticking Flores at shortstop is a temporary fix, one that could at least give a rebuilding team a better idea of whether a long-touted player can produce enough offense to merit carving out a spot at an easier position down the road. More than spending millions of dollars on a name-brand player unlikely to lift them into contention — namely Jhonny Peralta or Stephen Drew — that's what the Mets should be doing right now. It may not work, but it's worth a try.