David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
ATLANTA - Is Wilmer Flores a shortstop now? Or have we all just stopped paying attention?
The truth is somewhere in between. But for practical purposes, let's just say Flores is doing what the Mets hoped he would when the season began: playing enough defense to give them a nice offensive edge at the position.
And given that the Mets are days away from knocking out the woozy Nationals, it's not too soon to wonder what that means come playoff time. Stick with Flores' pop against the Dodgers' stingy pitching staff or go with Ruben Tejada's glove, as runs will be at a premium?
That's going to take a few meetings to sort out, and the Mets are focused on clinching the NL East first. But ever since the teary-eyed Flores was pulled back from Milwaukee, he's become what he always should have been, a solid complementary piece to a deeper, more intimidating lineup.
Before Saturday night's 6-4 win over the Braves, Flores was batting .316 (26-for-114) with eight doubles, six home runs, 19 RBIs and an .888 OPS in the 33 games since July 31.
Rather than be miscast as a No. 4 or 5 hitter -- and carrying that burden -- he is a weapon in the lower third of the lineup.
And with the spotlight off him at shortstop, Flores' head is clear at the plate, where he's shown as much development as on the defensive end.
"I think he's actually grown offensively," Sandy Alderson said Saturday. "I think he's a lot more selective at the plate, which may have something to do with everybody around him. He's played great since, you know, late July."
The GM was smiling as he finished that sentence, a wink to the failed trade with the Brewers that raised Flores to cult-hero status in Flushing. It was the Mets who killed the deal, citing concerns over Carlos Gomez's medical records, and yet Flores has helped them rebound in spectacular fashion from one of the franchise's worst PR disasters.
What many people forget, or simply choose to misremember, is that Flores was hardly a fan favorite when this season began. He even got a few boos on Opening Day at Citi. Through no fault of his own, Flores had come to represent the Mets' failure to acquire a legit shortstop in the offseason, and specifically their refusal to pay for one.
But Alderson stubbornly clung to Flores, and 5½ months later, he's allowed the GM to add him to a crowded list of successful decisions. As the Mets worked around David Wright's rehab and Lucas Duda's stint on the DL, Flores got 30 starts at second base, his more comfortable spot. With the Mets now at full strength, his role is the everyday shortstop -- and a more reliable one than before.
"The concerns of him being out there are gone," infield coach Tim Teufel said. "He's going to do the job. I think he's becoming a little more instinctual out there, when he's anticipating where the pitch is going to be thrown. What the batter is going to do with that particular pitch.
"I think he's getting good jumps. His reaction times are good. So I think you're seeing the fruit of all that."
Ask Flores about his view from the position, and you quickly get a scouting rundown of the Mets' rotation, the nuances of each starter.
Flores still is only 24, and another 92 games at short this season have helped him get more familiar with the hitters he's trying to defend. A half step, or even leaning the right way, is what separates an out from a base hit. "It's definitely a big help," Flores said.
No matter how much time he puts in, Flores never will be Andrelton Simmons, who made a diving stop and then effortlessly started a double play from one knee Saturday against the Mets. But the runs Flores doesn't prevent, maybe he can produce.
Since the All-Star break, Flores' .786 OPS is third among NL shortstops -- the Pirates' Jung Ho Kang (.943) is first -- and he's sixth in RBIs with 21. Four of Flores' six homers during that stretch have given the Mets a lead, too.
"I think the mission was accomplished," Teufel said. "Staying with him, letting him develop on both ends."
What a waste it would have been if Flores had been doing all this in Milwaukee.