WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — For three innings Saturday, Wilmer Flores baked under the hot South Florida sun, waiting for what any ballplayer, at any level, wants: the ball to be hit to him.
Flores was making his outfield debut, starting in leftfield in place of Yoenis Cespedes, who took at-bats in a minor-league game. It was Flores’ first time in the outfield during a game in more than a decade as a professional. His experience previously was limited to drills with outfield coach Ruben Amaro Jr. in recent weeks.
Finally, Flores’ fellow Wilmer — Nationals utilityman Wilmer Difo — lofted a fly ball to left in the fourth. Flores settled under the ball and the ball settled into his glove, a gift from Cespedes two years ago — you know, just in case Flores ever needed it.
“I was getting a little bit anxious. I wanted to get that first ball,” Flores said. “I felt weird. Obviously. I was waiting to get my first fly ball, to get my first one out of the way. I did, and I was waiting for another ball.”
No more fly balls came his way in Flores’ seven defensive innings, but he did finish 3-for-4 with a homer and a double, both against righthanders (Edwin Jackson and Tanner Roark, respectively).
That offensive output is an example of why manager Mickey Callaway and the Mets want Flores out there to begin with, evidence that this is more than just a spring training experiment to protect against an emergency.
“You saw why he needs to be playing multiple positions, because the kid can hit,” Callaway said. “He can hit really good. We need to get him as many at-bats as we can this season.”
Added Amaro: “It’s nice to be able to have that versatility for him, because he can swing the bat, obviously. Whatever opportunity he has to get out there on the field, the more versatility he has, the better.”
Additional defensive versatility for the sake of getting his bat in the lineup is nothing new for Flores, who came up as a shortstop but eventually learned all four infield positions.
The latest layer, the outfield, is new this year. Flores said he has been working out there about twice per week, plus shagging flies during batting practice.
Callaway said it’s “not out of the realm of possibility” that Flores will start an occasional game in leftfield during the regular season.
“He’s been real receptive to it,” Amaro said. “He’s a pretty good athlete, so he knows what he’s [doing]. He hasn’t been challenged yet, but we’ll see what happens.
“He looks OK. He looks fine. He catches the balls he gets to. He moves well to the ball. He’s fine. Let’s see how it goes.”
The other dynamic in play is the Mets’ roster construction. They are slated to carry only four outfielders on their Opening Day roster — Cespedes, Jay Bruce, Brandon Nimmo and Juan Lagares — so if Flores can play leftfield, it will help the Mets cover themselves.
A versatile bench makes it easier to go with an extra reliever (eight instead of seven) and a four-man bench.
Along those lines, Phillip Evans will be the catcher in a Grapefruit League game in the coming days, Callaway said. Evans is another former shortstop who has learned second, third and leftfield. The Mets like his bat, so the more positions he can play, the better.
Just like Flores.
“That’s huge,” Callaway said. “If you have guys with that kind of versatility, it makes it easier to do what you want to do with your bullpen.”