Mets general manager Sandy Alderson has been busy this offseason, despite any snickering that statement might invite. Yes, the only additions of any consequence are Michael Cuddyer and John Mayberry Jr., but that doesn't mean he hasn't been working to find ways to fill holes in the Mets roster, albeit under tight, ownership-mandated financial restrictions. One of those holes is at shortstop.
The breadth of potential candidates to fill this hole, at least in Mets fans' eyes, is astounding—from the bad (Everth Cabrera), to the mediocre (Asdrubal Cabrera), to the good (Starlin Castro), to the great (Troy Tulowitzki). What many fans might not want to hear is that Alderson has had the solution to this problem in the team's system for some time now, and his name is Wilmer Flores. What those same fans may be relieved to find out, however, is that sticking with Flores is the right move.
Flores's flaws are pretty glaring. While in the minors, the organization doubted his defense enough to try him at second and third, and he has hit .240/.275/.356 through his first 105 big league games. But those numbers can be pretty misleading. Coming up as a top prospect in the Mets' system, Flores is used to being an everyday player. For the large part of his service in the majors, his playing time was irregular, often going days between starts and doing a lot of pinch hitting.
However, from the 107th game of the 2014 season on, Flores was the team's starting shortstop, appearing in 51 of the remaining 55 contests. During that span, he hit .262/.301/.419—with a surprisingly low .258 BABIP—giving him a .720 OPS that would have placed Flores sixth among MLB shortstops last season. He also hit five home runs and had 22 RBI in his 184 plate appearances during this period, a pace of about 18 home runs and 78 RBI over the course of 650 plate appearances, a typical number for a healthy full-time starter.
Although it's a small sample size, it represents a tick under half his MLB service time and his most recent body of work after some expected acclimating to the big leagues, so it may well be the most accurate depiction of Flores's potential. Look no further than Lucas Duda for an example of a guy proving his worth once given the opportunity to play almost every game.
Of course, these measly 184 at-bats aren't the end of Flores's offensive resume. He's appeared on Baseball Prospectus's Top 101 Prospects list four times and has the recent minor league numbers to prove he belongs in the majors, regardless of his role. In 2012 and 2013 combined, Flores played a convenient 162 games for the Triple-A Las Vegas 51s of the Pacific Coast League, hitting .321/.360/.543 with 28 home runs, 143 RBI, and 47 doubles. Taking into account the increase in quality of opponents from the minors to the majors, and the fact that Las Vegas's Cashman Field is one of several offensive launching pads in the PCL, these numbers are hardly indicative of the sort of damage Flores will do in the big leagues. Yet if he were able to muster even half that power for the Mets—14 home runs, 72 RBI, 24 doubles—he'd still be one of the better offensive shortstops in the league, no matter what happens to his batting average.
Between Flores's youth (he turns 24 in August), his recent numbers in the minors and as a starter in the majors, and an expected rise in his BABIP from last season, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect an Alexei Ramirez-like season from him at the plate in 2015 if he can remain healthy.
As for his defense, whether or not Flores can handle everyday duties at shortstop remains to be seen. But, as FanGraphs pointed out in September, it hasn't been bad enough yet to push him off the position, especially if he has the potential to hit 20 home runs a season:
In most cases, when a scout has suggested that a player’s actions aren't suited to this or that defensive position, then that player really isn't suited to this or that defensive position. In other cases, however — like the ongoing mystery that is Jhonny Peralta — there’s a disconnect between a fielder’s actions and his ability to convert batted balls into outs.
What appears likely, in any case, is that the Mets experiment of installing Flores as the (mostly) starter at shortstop has had relatively positive returns thus far — if only because those returns haven’t been disastrous. It’s also an experiment that probably deserves to be extended — because, as Baseball America noted in 2012, a player with Flores’ offensive upside does have a chance to be special if he’s also playing shortstop.
Peralta is a good comparison here, because like Flores, he isn't fluid in the field. Flores is very big for a shortstop, and that size, combined with what scouts describe as "heavy feet," make him seem unnatural in the field, the way Peralta does. Although generally a good indicator, this condition doesn't exclusively determine whether a player is or isn't capable of handling shortstop, it just means Flores's defense, like Peralta's, won't be the most aesthetically pleasing.
In addition to Flores's potential, even if the Mets were to make a move for a shortstop, they'd likely get more in return for a mid-season trade, so it makes the most sense to see what he can do. Alderson has relayed his dissatisfaction with the free agent shortstop market a few times, and rightfully so. And the team's embarrassment of riches in the pitching ranks has ironically impeded the GM's quest for a fair swap of pitching for a new shortstop—Jon Niese's and Dillon Gee's values seem to be going down in other teams' eyes merely because standing behind Niese and Gee are the likes of Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom. Of course, the team should accept any shortstop trade offer that bowls them over (or lands them Troy Tulowitzki for a semi-reasonable price), but that doesn't look like it's coming this offseason. That dynamic will change during the season, though, as teams both playoff-bound and play-hopeful get more and more desperate to add pitching.
Who knows how the Mets will look by then? They could be down two pitchers to injury, or Flores could be in the midst of a breakout year, at which point the team might flip a veteran pitcher to strengthen another area of the roster. Or perhaps the team's front office will be satisfied but not enamored with Flores' performance, giving the team the flexibility to sign a free agent shortstop in 2015 (Ian Desmond, anyone?) and use Flores either in a trade, a utility role, or a move to second base if another team desires Daniel Murphy's services enough.
The Mets scored more runs than they allowed last year, with Flores, Ruben Tejada, and a dash of Omar Quintanilla manning short. They've added a consistent 20-home-run threat in Cuddyer, a guy in Mayberry who can mash lefties in place of Duda, and they're getting their ace back after a yearlong absence. The team will most likely improve no matter what Flores does, and the likelihood of finding a replacement for him only increases once the season starts.
Fans and front office alike are yearning for a shortstop that can be a threat with a bat in his hands—a yearning both have maintained since 2011. It's time to finally find out if Flores can be that shortstop.