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Mets planting seeds for Flores playing shortstop

JUPITER, Fla. -- Wilmer Flores ranged slightly to his left, bent to field a first-inning grounder ... and bobbled it. An inning later he charged a slow roller but could not throw to first in time to prevent an infield hit. A few moments after that, his relay throw on a double sailed well up the line, far from home plate.

It was, in other words, an inauspicious start to Flores' first significant shortstop action in three years. But it was just a start.

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"He's a real bright guy -- he knows what's going on," manager Terry Collins said, blaming the youngster's imperfections during Tuesday's Grapefruit League game against the Cardinals, a 9-8 win, on nerves. "We'll run him back out there."

As it was, Flores' afternoon was not all bad. Though he bobbled the first ball he saw in the first inning, he did recover in time to flip to second base for a forceout, though his slow turn may have played a role in Omar Quintanilla's errant relay on a would-be double play. An inning later, Daniel Descalso's infield hit occurred on an admittedly difficult ball to field. On the second-inning play at the plate, even a perfect relay may not have resulted in an out.

But the performance was still not what Flores, a one-time everyday shortstop, envisioned when he trotted out to start his first professional game at the position since 2011.

"I just have to play a little bit more," Flores said. "I definitely can play. The first inning I was a little bit nervous maybe, but as the game went on, I was relaxed."

For now, consider this an experiment and nothing more. By giving Flores significant innings at shortstop, the Mets are overturning every stone on their 40-man roster. Multiple front-office members -- not to mention an even larger contingent of scouts -- do not seriously believe that Flores is athletic enough to handle one of the game's most difficult defensive positions. But Collins in particular is curious about Flores given the work he did this winter during two stints at a fitness camp near Ann Arbor, Mich.

Flores eschewed a relaxing winter in his native Venezuela in order to improve his conditioning and flexibility in snowy Michigan along with teammates Lucas Duda and Ruben Tejada. The result was a noticeably slimmer, leaner infielder who reported to camp last month.

Once in Florida, opportunity called. When the Mets shrugged off their pursuit of free-agent shortstop Stephen Drew, that isolated Tejada as the Mets' only real starting shortstop option. When Tejada committed two errors and multiple other misplays in his first four Grapefruit League games, it only amplified the need to explore other options at short.

Enter Flores, whose offensive potential remains immense. The Mets' No. 5 prospect as ranked by, Flores slugged .531 last summer as a 21-year-old at Triple-A Las Vegas. On Tuesday, even as he struggled in the field, he offered glimpses of his offensive potential by reaching base three times in four plate appearances -- including a booming double in the fifth inning that hopped over the wall in straightaway center.

Flores is not about to supplant Tejada as the Mets' starting shortstop any time soon; he has not played regularly at the position since 2011, and most scouts still do not think he can handle it. More likely, he will wind up at second base, where he performed capably last season in Vegas.

"I can't control that," he said. "What I can control is just going out there and giving 100 percent."

But if Flores proves even passable at shortstop, it would give the Mets more flexibility in carrying him on the Opening Day bench rather than having him report to the Minors. None of the organization's other high-level shortstops -- namely Quintanilla, Anthony Seratelli and Wilfredo Tovar -- boasts comparable offensive potential. That gives Flores the same type of upside he has had since the Mets signed him as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela: terrific power-oriented offense, with no obvious defensive home.

Shortstop may not be the ultimate answer, if Tuesday's Grapefruit League game was indication, but at least the Mets will soon know for sure.

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo.

New York Mets, Wilmer Flores