Wilmer Flores must hit to make up for defensive issues

Mets' Wilmer Flores tosses his bat as he

Mets' Wilmer Flores tosses his bat as he heads for first base during a spring training game against the Detroit Tigers at Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla. on Saturday, March 8, 2013. (Credit: Ernst Peters)

Little debate exists about the defensive ability of Mets prospect Wilmer Flores, whose bat has always been seen as superior to his glove.

"He's not a shortstop,'' a rival scout said flatly. "He will struggle to handle the speed of the position, doesn't have the footwork or body control to handle plays around the bag.''

Another talent evaluator warned that Mets pitchers shouldn't expect any favors, "because if it's anywhere in the hole, he has no shot.''

With their past actions, even the Mets have weighed in, moving the 22-year-old Flores to second base and third base after the 2010 season. Only in spring training this year did Flores return to shortstop, where he stood in as a fallback option for Ruben Tejada.

Now, barely five weeks into the season, the Mets have decided to roll the dice, recalling Flores from Triple-A Las Vegas because Tejada is hitting .183.

Playing Flores at shortstop and putting him alongside second baseman Daniel Murphy could give the Mets one of baseball's shakiest middle infields. But with the team again lagging behind in most major offensive categories, the Mets have chosen to prioritize run-scoring over defense. And that means wagering that Flores' bat will make up for his deficiencies.

According to team sources, no decision has been made about how playing time at shortstop will be distributed. But while Tejada will not be phased out, Flores appears positioned to prove that he can man the position at a baseline level.

If he manages that, his offensive production likely will determine how long the Mets stomach his shortcomings in the field.

Assistant general manager John Ricco said earlier this week that internal scouting reports had Flores making most of the routine plays. Though hardly a standout in the field, Flores has "held his own'' despite seven errors in 25 games at short, Ricco said.

The gamble, however, will be worthwhile only if Flores holds up his end of the bargain at the plate.

"The focus shouldn't be whether or not he can play shortstop. We all know that answer,'' a rival scout said. "The focus should be on how much he has to hit to cover up his defensive flaws.''

Flores was hitting .307 with five homers and 25 RBIs at Triple-A Las Vegas of the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. But according to a rival evaluator who recently scouted Flores, those numbers don't pass the eye test.

"He was struggling some. I don't care what his average says,'' the scout said. "Against better pitching, he wasn't exactly lighting it up. With good pitching, he's going to struggle.''

Flores has been able to drive the ball the other way, but the scout said he has been beaten by fastballs. He also has given in to temptation to chase pitches out of the zone.

Flores' power potential remains another question.

"I don't know if he's a 10- home run guy right now,'' the scout said. "I didn't see it.''

But scouts say no other viable options exist in the minor leagues for the Mets, and the organization has shown no indication that it will pursue free-agent shortstop Stephen Drew.

Tejada, 24, again finds himself at a crossroads, a year after losing his starting job and falling out of favor with the organization.

Lately, he appeared to be on thin ice again. In consecutive games this week, manager Terry Collins pinch hit for Tejada in late-game situations.

Those struggles opened the door for Flores, the Mets' best alternative, albeit a flawed one.

Said a talent evaluator: "They really have no infielders.''

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