David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - To Sandy Alderson, the shortstop position mostly has been a punch line, something to joke about at dinners or jury duty. While that may be entertaining during the winter months, it will become less funny as Opening Day draws closer if the Mets don't have a trustworthy player there.
So forgive manager Terry Collins if he doesn't share Alderson's sense of humor on this particular subject. When we asked him if Wilmer Flores has looked more comfortable lately at the position -- he did make two nice plays Sunday in a 6-3 loss to Boston -- Collins had an interesting and revealing answer.
"We've got to find out if he can play shortstop," he said.
Whoa. Hold on a sec. We were under the impression the Mets already thought Flores could because, you know, they chose not to sign a proven commodity at that spot during the offseason.
And what does that make Ruben Tejada, exactly? A backup shortstop on a team that doesn't have a shortstop?
Now that's funny.
But criticizing the Mets for their failure to address certain holes before spring training is old news at this point. Let's deal with the solution here rather than the problem.
What if Flores -- long considered Alderson's default option -- actually can play shortstop?
Flores certainly believes he's up to the task, and infield coach Tim Teufel doesn't talk like someone who is wasting his time. Teufel loves crunching data, and he believes through analytic-driven positioning -- and Flores' own attention to detail -- that they'll have a capable shortstop on Opening Day.
"He's studying it, he's buying into everything we're talking about and he's applying it," Teufel said. "He wants to be good. He doesn't just want to be average. He wants to be better than that, so he's working hard."
Nobody with the Mets ever described Tejada that way -- even his former pal, Jose Reyes, ripped him to Newsday's Anthony Rieber a few days ago from over in Dunedin -- so at least Flores is a project that has the club's full backing. With that kind of effort from both sides, the Mets might be able to pull this off.
Flores has done his part. He again participated in the team's offseason conditioning program, which has helped transform him during the past two years into a leaner, more explosive player from a defensive standpoint.
He is 23, and usually there is room for significant improvement at that age. The Mets aren't pushing for a Gold Glove at the position, obviously. Just someone who won't look as if he's wearing lead cleats.
In the first inning Sunday, Flores got dirty by diving to his right to spear Xander Bogaerts' line drive and rob him of a hit. In the third, Flores again ranged to his right, this time to backhand Christian Vazquez's grounder in the hole before firing a long, perfect throw to first.
These are merely two outs in a spring training game, but it's all we've got to go on for now. And they do have merit as glimpses into a plan that might be working.
Flores said he's getting better reads after studying his own teammates make contact during countless hours of batting practice. He also senses that he's lighter and quicker, and Teufel is arming him with more information than ever before. "I feel awesome," he said.
What more can the Mets can ask for on March 9, right? As Teufel pointed out, they're at the stage of spring training when players are getting used to the speed of the game again, and there's still time to continue their evaluation of Flores.
With offense vanishing around baseball, the Mets would love to have his bat justify taking that leap of faith at shortstop. Are they being greedy in hoping that Flores can be a decent defender, too? Or just foolhardy?
The Mets have spent all this time assembling what should be a stellar pitching rotation, but they still must cross their fingers by relying on Flores and Daniel Murphy up the middle. Murphy has pretty much reached his ceiling as an inconsistent glove, to put the most optimistic spin on it. The Mets aren't quite there yet with Flores. But those entrusted with tutoring him see promise rather than a punch line.
Then again, they don't have much of a choice.