PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
What in the name of Ben Zobrist is going on with Wilmer Flores? For a player who’s supposed to be the Mets’ super-utility solution, at least for the infield positions, Flores is spending a lot of time at third base — as in every one of his games there before Saturday’s start at shortstop against the Cardinals.
The Mets chose to slide him over after finding out a day earlier that Asdrubal Cabrera, the regular shortstop, might not return from a strained knee soon enough for Opening Day in Kansas City. Makes sense, but of all the things on Flores’ plate this month, that position probably is low on his list of concerns.
The single-minded focus on third base, however, is a pretty strong indication that the Mets might be more worried than they’re letting on about David Wright’s physical condition.
After a few weeks of fuzzy outlooks, Terry Collins revealed Saturday that Wright will play in a minor-league game Monday at home while the Mets take a 2½-hour bus ride to Lakeland to face the Tigers.
As for when Wright will suit up with the varsity, Collins is thinking either Thursday or Friday, so circle those dates as critical on the Mets’ calendar.
In the meantime, Flores said he’s been breaking in a new third baseman’s glove, and Collins remains undeterred in using him mostly to spell Wright — or replace him for longer stretches.
“We’re trying to get him as comfortable as we can at third base,” Collins said. “Should anything unforeseen happen to David, we’ve just got to get him ready to play there.”
The Mets, of course, already know what they’re dealing with when it comes to Wright. The spinal stenosis is a chronic condition that does not heal, and they’ve handled him with extreme caution in spring training. Wright’s running program has progressed at a glacial pace, and now he has a little more than two weeks to tune up.
Usually, that wouldn’t be an issue. But it’s not as if Wright can compress a month’s worth of work into half the time. Even when he does begin playing, he is going to require plenty of breaks in between. And then it’s a long plane ride to Las Vegas for two exhibition games against the Cubs, followed by another flight to KC for the season opener.
Thanks to Flores, the Mets have insurance for Wright. But what about elsewhere for the infield? Flores also is listed as the primary backup to Lucas Duda, with potential spot duty against difficult lefthanders, but he has yet to play an inning of a Grapefruit League game at the position. Flores has logged a total of 20 minor-league games at first base in his career, a total of 148 1⁄3 innings, and committed two errors.
“You can take 1,000 ground balls at first on the back fields,” Flores said Saturday, “but it’s not the same as game speed.”
He’s right. Playing first base is not as simple as slipping on a rounded mitt and standing next to the bag. It’s important to see throws from elsewhere on the diamond, to notice which ones tail or dip, and to get familiar with the footwork necessary around the base.
For someone like Duda, it’s second nature, and the muscle memory kicks in during the most challenging plays. But Flores doesn’t have that override switch, and a wrong step by him can turn a routine groundout into a game-changing blunder.
The most Duda has played in a season is 153 games in 2014. Last year, he was limited to 135 by back issues. There will be instances when Flores is going to be called on for first base, but as Collins correctly asserts, he’ll be needed to sub for Wright far more often — unless the Mets track down a lefthanded-hitting third baseman to share some of that workload.
Flores might be more important to the Mets now than he was as the everyday shortstop last season, and they had him traded to the Brewers in July if not for the worrisome MRI that prompted Sandy Alderson to balk on Carlos Gomez. That teary night at Citi Field transformed Flores into a cult hero and a sentimental favorite of the fan base.
Even down in Port St. Lucie, during a TV appearance at a local sports bar, the crowd merrily yelled, “Wil-Mer, Wil-Mer!” You hear the chant wherever he goes.
“It never gets old,” Flores said.
And for the Mets, he’s never been more relied upon.
SHANNON FORDE FUND
Shannon Forde, who worked in the Mets’ media relations department for more than two decades, passed away on March 4 after a long battle against Stage IV breast cancer. A fund has been established to help her husband, John, and two children, Nicholas, 8, and Kendall, 5. Donations can be made to the Daniel P. Ryan Foundation. Check can be sent to P.O. Box 3145, Point Pleasant, NJ 08742 to the attention of Gaby Ryan. Contributions also can be made online at www.dprf.org. The tax ID number is 26-3907621