Over a span of three games in early July, New York Mets infielder Wilmer Flores made starts at third and second base—and then, when James Loney was lifted in a double-switch in the top of the fifth inning against the Washington Nationals on July 7th, Flores grabbed his mitt and trotted out to man first base.
A half-inning later—in his first at-bat—he launched a three-run home run. The Mets won 9-7.
Flores was an unlikely candidate to emerge as a dependable, multi-positional player this season. Around this time last year, he was perhaps best known for crying on the field after hearing rumors of his own impending trade to the Milwaukee Brewers (a deal that wound up falling through). And despite his familiarity with several infield positions, the 24-year-old has toiled on defense throughout the minor and major leagues.
"I started playing shortstop when I was 15 years old, so that was my first position," Flores said before Friday night's game against the Colorado Rockies. "I started playing third base in winter ball before 2012. So I had an idea of how to play there. I like all of [my positions], but if I had to choose, I would say second base."
The Mets tasked Flores with learning second and third base in '12, but he did not stick at any one position. And according to defensive runs saved, an advanced fielding metric, Flores' prowess at shortstop last season ranked second-to-last.
His mercurial play, perhaps, inspired a busy offseason for the Mets. The team acquired Asdrubal Cabrera, Neil Walker, and more recently Jose Reyes. Pushed to the bench, Flores was uncertain as to how he could eke out playing time in such a crowded infield.
"I wasn't clear [what my role would be]," said Flores. "The [Mets] never spoke to me [about my role]. I just showed up at spring training, and that was it."
Yet Flores' ability to play four positions in a pinch—shortstop, second, third, and now first base—has been a boon for the Mets in 2016. Paired with his resplendent bat against left-handed pitching, Flores, once a nomadic liability of sorts, has embraced in his new role.
Multi-positional players are a valuable asset in the modern major leagues. The Dodgers have done a good job of collecting players who can play all around the field, including former Met Justin Turner. This offseason, Ben Zobrist was coveted by several teams, including the Mets, and eventually landed a four-year $56 million contract with the Chicago Cubs. Clearly the Mets like versatile players, but it's also obvious they aren't quite sold on Flores' versatility.
Neither are teams around the league.
"It's such a weird profile," one American League team executive said about Flores. "Utility guys generally get you good [defense] at multiple positions. He's just merely capable at multiple positions."
It might be that Flores would be most valuable as an American League player where he could just DH against left-handed pitchers. But for now, the Mets will try to make the most of what they have.
"His super-utility skills have really come into play for our organization and it's really been an asset," said Mets' third base and infield coach Tim Teufel. "It's nice to have different personnel play different positions. And Wilmer has certainly given manager [Terry Collins] a lot of flexibility."
Teufel, an 11-year veteran who, like Flores, expanded his repertoire of positions while playing for the Mets and the Padres in the 1980s and '90s, understands the angst of staying relevant in the major leagues. According to Teufel, Flores puts in the work to "stay sharp," which in turn has imbued the Mets with confidence in him.
"[Flores] is prepared mentally for any day—any situation—because he practices extraordinary hard," said Teufel. "He's out on the field all the time as far as getting his work done at each position."
Flores' defense—at all positions—is still not his strong suit; his defense ranges from below average to average, according to advanced fielding metrics; his fluidity and instincts are still a work in progress. But the Venezuelan native has placated his detractors by batting .348 with seven home runs, and a 194 wRC+ over 63 plate appearances versus southpaws.
The right-handed hitter has struggled against his own kind, however. Flores has posted a .214 batting average and 73 wRC+ this season. His career numbers versus right-handed pitching are equally ominous: a .252 batting average and 85 wRC+. (Flores brushes aside his divisive split: "I can hit righties," he said.)
And yet, Flores—even with his shortcomings—is the type of quality depth a competing team covets and often overpays for. The Mets themselves are guilty of this; last deadline, they traded veritable minor league pitchers Robert Whalen and Jon Gant for veteran bench hands Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe.
Between the ignominy of his almost-trade to the Brewers last summer and the vagaries surrounding his purpose to begin this season, Flores' sinuous career would weigh heavy on most ballplayers, but the infielder tries not to think about it.
"I try to show up here and if they say you're playing second base, I shoot out there and play," Flores said. "That's my preparation."
He added, "If you start thinking about a lot of the things you have to do, that's a lot of information. There's four positions in the infield for me. So I just show up here and play—and that's it."
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