Sweet 16

Mets prospect Flores shows ability beyond his years

Most baseball players Wilmer Flores' age are enjoying summer ball after their high school seasons, hoping to be seen by a college coach or a pro scout while they worry about facing the pitcher from the next town over.

Flores, on the other hand, is getting used to a new culture, facing pitchers who in most cases are several years older than him, and starting his professional career.

Flores is a 16-year-old shortstop playing at Rookie-level Kingsport in the Appalachian League. He's one of the youngest players in professional baseball, but he was delivering a strong performance in his debut and already looks like one of the Mets' top prospects. Mets executives who have seen him play already compare him with players like Mike Schmidt and Chipper Jones.

Flores is accustomed to attention. His exceptional bat and ability to play a premium position drew a lot of notice in his native Venezuela. After a number of high-ranking team officials, including international scouting director Ismael Cruz and vice president of scouting Sandy Johnson, saw him play, the Mets signed him for $750,000, the largest international bonus they handed out last year.

"When Sandy likes a player, that says a lot," said Tony Bernarzard, Mets vice president of player development.

Ready For Stiff Competition

 Flores signed with the Mets during last summer's international signing period and played in Venezuela's winter minor league in the offseason.

After finishing up in Venezuela, Flores joined the Mets in Port St. Lucie, Fla., for spring training. Even after garnering a huge bonus like Flores did, most 16-year-olds would be a bit awed working out in the same complex as big league stars like David Wright and Pedro Martinez. That's not Flores' style, though, says Bernazard. "He's been very competitive," he said. "He wanted to hit against the big leaguers right away."

Flores spent a few months in extended spring training before heading to Kingsport when its season started in June. He speaks little English and talks with reporters through a translator. Kingsport is a far cry from Venezuela, and even Kingsport general manager Roman Stout concedes that adjusting to life in Eastern Tennessee isn't always easy for prospects, but Flores has handled it better than most.

"Like a lot of guys we get here, this is his first year of pro baseball. From what I've seen, he is mature beyond his years and poised. He hasn't seemed out of place at all since he's been here," Stout said of Flores' adjustment to life in the minor leagues.

Most of the players in the Appalachian League are draft picks coming out of college or high school, or players who have already put in time in the Gulf Coast or Arizona leagues or the Latin American summer leagues. The average age in the league in 2007 was more than 20. With Flores nearly four years younger than that at the time he would take his first professional cut, there were doubts that he could hang in against older competition.

He didn't waste any time conquering those doubts. Flores, a righthanded batter, went 3-for-5 in his pro debut, ripping a three-run home run in the ninth inning against Greeneville. He was batting .354/.386/.646 overall with five home runs and 19 RBIs in 79 at-bats.

While no one in the Mets organization wants to get too excited about a 16-year-old kid in Rookie ball, they do think he is the real deal. Team officials say he already is one of the top three shortstops in their system, along with Ruben Tejada and Reese Havens. Tejada is an 18-year-old playing at high Class A St. Lucie, and his calling card is his outstanding defense and throwing arm. Havens was a Mets first-round pick out of South Carolina this year. While Flores may not be as polished as the other two, Bernazard says he might end up being the best of the three.

"In the short term he is in the top three, but in the long term he is No. 1," Bernazard said.

Move In His Future?

Even before he played a game stateside, concern existed about Flores' future at shortstop—at least in the scouting community. Some thought the maturation of his 6-foot-3 frame would force him off the position as he developed, but those who have seen Flores play remain convinced there won't be a need to move him anytime soon.

"He is going to stay in a premium position until we determine how he's doing," Bernazard said. "If we see shortstop is not his position, then we'll do something, but right now he is going to be at shortstop."

Flores suffered his first bump in the road less than a week into his first season when Kingsport manager Nick Leyva left for a major league coaching job in Toronto. Local sportswriter Ron Bliss has covered Kingsport baseball for more than 25 years and says Leyva's loss certainly affected Flores.

"He was sort of a father figure to Wilmer, and when he left (it seemed) to have an impact on Wilmer," he said of the departure of Leyva, who had also served as Flores' translator.

Flores went through a brief slump after Leyva's departure, then settled in with new manager Pedro Lopez and allowed Mets followers to crank up the heady comparisons again. Bliss said Flores reminds him of when a young Darryl Strawberry played in Kingsport.

With Flores being just 16, the Mets don't want to rush him to the majors, and all the comparisons to other teenage sensations like Miguel Cabrera seem a bit far-fetched for someone who has been playing professional ball for less than a month.

While the Mets are trying to keep down they hype, they won't hold Flores back if he continues to show promise.

"We are going to challenge (some of the players in the organization). Some guys we will challenge more than others," Bernazard said. "His performance will let us know how much to challenge him."