Wilmer Flores, Meet Keith Miller
If you had Wilmer Flores in the pool as the Mets Opening Day shortstop, get ready to collect. As incredible as it sounds, the Mets, a team hoping to vault into contention via their cache of young pitchers, are actually planning on starting the season with a previously-failed shortstop prospect manning this vital position; pointing to a small sample size (occurring in September no less) as the rationale for this move. It would be far better for them to just admit that they can’t afford a roster full of the caliber of players that a contender needs, a but honesty was an early casualty in the post-Madoff era.
I am rooting for Flores and I really want the Mets to go back to the playoffs. I don’t need to be right about this one. I will gladly suffer self-congratulatory remarks from a champagne-soaked Jeff Wilpon in the Mets clubhouse after an NLCS win rather than dealing with another losing season. But, after 40-plus years (gulp!) of Met fandom, I have been conditioned into expecting the worst. And I think we’re going to get it. The Mets have a long history of trying to shoehorn bad fits into their lineup, often with disastrous results. The Howard Johnson in centerfield experiment still gives me (and I suppose Hojo as well) nightmares. I have racked my brain trying to come up with a scenario for Flores that might have if not a happy ending, at least a less bad one. Then I remembered Keith Miller and the great 1990 Centerfield Experiment.
If anyone epitomized the term “nice little ballplayer,” it was Miller. He played all over the field and could run a little. On a team loaded with superstars, the blue collar Miller was a welcomed throw back. In 1990, the season after they traded both incumbent centerfielders, the Mets handed the center field job to Miller. The results where less than stellar. Miller didn’t field well enough to overcome his 250/350/404 slash line for the first month of the season. The Mets, picked by many to win the division where struggling (manager Davey Johnson would be fired 42 games into the season) and looked for upgrades. They found one in Daryl Boston, whom they picked up off waivers on April 30. Boston was soon inserted into centerfield and slashed 273/328/440 the rest of the way. One of my favorite Shea Stadium scoreboard witticisms was BOSTON POPS! on the marquee after an extra base hit from Daryl. Not a gold glover by any stretch, he was nevertheless defensively an improvement over Miller and overall, represented an upgrade for the Mets in center.
With a new manager and a new centerfielder, the Mets somewhat righted the ship. They won 91 games, four behind the division winning Pirates. There where only two NL divisions and no wildcard then, so they went home. This was the end of the great 1980’s Mets run and they wouldn’t have another winning season for seven years and not break the 90-win plateau until 1999. As for Miller, he was dealt after the 1991 season in the ill-fated Bret Saberhagen trade.
Flores reminds me somewhat of Miller: a decent bat and no real defensive position. Miller had “potential” written all over him until prolonged exposure to major league pitching revealed his limitations. I suspect the same will happen with Wilmer. BTW–Miller hit .373 for the 1987 Mets, higher than any average Flores has put up anywhere.
The Miller-to-Boston switch might be the best we can hope for at short this year. The Mets themselves have great expectations for this season and the noise will likely increase as Opening Day draws near. If the team and Flores stumble early, like Miller and the 90 Mets did, will GM Sandy Alderson finally bite the bullet and bring in a real shortstop? Perhaps he can finally convince Seattle to part with either Brad Miller or Chris Taylor. Or will he (dare I dream it?) trade for one of the Cub shortstops? These types of upgrades would make the contender talk much more realistic. Or was Terry Collins really serious the other day about an open competition between Wilmer and Ruben Tejada?