Flores as Mets' SS could have surprising results
New York callup who replaced Tejada is yet to prove himself on defense
NEW YORK -- George Steinbrenner maintained a small army of advisors and consultants he routinely identified as "my baseball people." Among the most highly regarded of the group for as long as he was in The Boss' employ was Clyde King, a man of golly-gosh-darn charm with a professorial appearance, the rural equivalent of street smarts and a strong sense of what would make baseball success.
And he enjoyed sharing his expertise.
Early in Spring Training of 1980, King provided his assessment of the Yankees team that Steinbrenner, general manager Gene Michael and rookie manager Dick Howser had assembled in the aftermath of the death of Thurman Munson and a fourth-place finish. He extended the fingers of both hands, rotating his left hand clockwise and his right counter clockwise and spoke.
"We're going to be good," King said, "because we mesh."
King's conclusion well before the Yankees would begin their season was that their components complemented each other: "We're going to win a lot," he said, "'cause look at it this way: We've got real special left-handed starters."
He went on to name Ron Guidry, Tommy John, Rudy May and Tom Underwood.
"And it's going to be darn hard for anyone to get a ball through the left side of our infield," an area manned by Bucky Dent and Graig Nettles.
To King, that was mesh.
He wasn't speaking genius; he was merely talking baseball nuance, something akin to the Cubs and Rockies not employing fly-ball, contact pitchers in the offensive friendly environments of their home parks or John Gibbons not using a challenged catcher with R.A. Dickey on the mound. Some would call that common sense.
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In an unrelated -- and unnuanced -- development Friday, the Mets promoted Wilmer Flores to play shortstop. And now, more than before, the Mets lack mesh. Some would call it something else.
The move wasn't made because of injury or emergency. Flores was imported from the Mets' Triple-A Las Vegas affiliate because he is a more accomplished offensive player than the man he replaced, Ruben Tejada, and because the team had been straining to score runs in bunches or even in pairs.
So now the team that began Friday in fourth place in the National League East and played its first 33 games with an unremarkable up-the-middle defense has switched to a more challenged defender at the most demanding position. Moreover, said infield setup is meant to support a starting rotation that relies on defense and not the strikeout.
This constitutes un-mesh in the same way that Deion Sanders has un-charm and Ramon Castro had un-speed.
How can this alignment be considered any sort of upgrade or solution? Not that Tejada was routinely mistaken for Mark Belanger or Ozzie Smith. And no, he wasn't hitting either. But for as long as Flores has been in the Mets' organization -- he was signed as a non-drafted free agent in August 2007 -- he has been characterized as "a kid who can swing the bat," or "a kid who has a chance to be a hitter" or some such description that diplomatically omitted mention of his defense.
When his defense was the topic, Flores was described generously as something other than a shortstop. And when a club official did discuss Flores' defense specifically -- and confidentially -- the words, "He can't play shortstop at the big league level" or something similar were spoken.
And now -- or for now -- Flores is the Mets' shortstop. His assignment seemingly constitutes a step backward for an organization that has had trouble moving forward in any area other than outfield defense and starting pitching. Travis d'Arnaud is learning, and his body of work is too meager to allow evaluation. Unprotected-in-the-lineup David Wright is too much the good soldier to cry "Help!" The outfielders can run down most fly balls. And someday soon Vic Black may return from Vegas and take over the closer role from whichever veteran reliever has most recently coughed it up.
Otherwise, there is insufficient talent, and what there is doesn't mesh any more than the generous right-center field dimensions of Citi Field and Wright's power to the same area.
If, as Sandy Alderson says, his March talk of 90 victories was a challenge and not a prediction, then the challenge is far greater now than it was when he delivered it. His Mets certainly are in the race, such as it is. But for a club to have designated one shortstop, Omar Quintanilla, for assignment and reduced another from a regular to an understudy, and then assigned the critical position to a player lacking even ordinary shortstop skills, it is a flashing neon sign that things are amiss in the Big Citi.
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Let it be noted that Terry Collins is not at fault in this scenario. The Mets have fine, young starting pitching, and pitching always is the critical factor. But their defense regularly undermines the pitching, and the batting order provides scant support. Collins doesn't have enough thumbs to plug the many holes.
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Yankee Stadium fans' treatment of Robinson Cano last week was weak. Citi Field fans were no better Friday night when they essentially ignored the presence and introduction of Marlon Byrd. Some sort of positive acknowledgement would have been fitting for Byrd, who was among the most productive Mets last season.
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The Mets' recent offensive doldrums are reminiscient of those that the 1975 team endured. Yogi Berra was their manager then, and he believed one effective remedy for a prolonged team slump was to eliminate batting practice for a day. Sounds illogical -- like turning a car in the direction of a skid when a skid begins. But it can work.
So it was in June of that season, and the Mets were in the midst of a stretch of 35 innings in which they had not scored. In the immediate aftermath of a third straight shutout loss, Yogi entered his office, moved behind the desk and into his chair and proclaimed: "We're not gonna hit tomorrow."
No one was surprised.
He meant batting practice had been canceled.