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01/16/12 10:00 AM EST

Bat will determine Flores' future position

Prospect projects as an infielder, but not as answer at shortstop

NEW YORK -- Mets trainer Ray Ramirez flew down to Panama earlier this winter, with the sole intent of helping Ruben Tejada develop enough strength and endurance to survive the rigors of a 162-game schedule. The Mets are banking on Tejada at shortstop this season, in part because they believe in him, and in part because they have no other choice.

Do not read those words too harshly -- it's not as if there is no reason for optimism regarding the left side of the infield. Twenty-two-year-old defensive whiz kids with .360 on-base percentages are few and far between. Though no one in the organization expects Tejada to match his predecessor, Jose Reyes, in terms of offensive production, the Mets are reasonably bullish that Tejada can at least hold his own as a Major League regular. Strength and experience, they believe, will only help.

"I think we're incredibly fortunate to have Tejada," Mets vice president of scouting and player development Paul DePodesta said. "He's a very legitimate shortstop."

But what if Tejada's career stalls, as many do in the face of more regular playing time? What if Ramirez's trip was in vain?

Two or three years ago, there was a notion around baseball that, perhaps, Wilmer Flores, a middle infielder by nature, would be ready to crack the big leagues by 2012. That hope dissolved when Flores, still just 20 years old, began developing slower than expected.

Recently (and hardly unexpectedly), the concept that Flores might ever be the long-term solution at shortstop has disappeared, as well.

Because of his frame and skill set, Flores never profiled as a classic middle infielder, even from his earliest days as a prospect. Most projections pegged him as a third baseman or corner outfielder, confident that he would develop a strong enough offensive profile to stick at those positions.

"When you have a guy like that, you let him play short until he shows he can't play it anymore," MLB.com prospects reporter Jonathan Mayo said. "To many, that point has come already."

To that end, the Mets allowed Flores to play almost exclusively at third base during winter ball in Venezuela, where he batted .301 with a .382 on-base percentage. It was the first tangible positive in some time for Flores, who posted on-base marks of .309 and .324 during extended runs at Class A St. Lucie in 2010 and '11.

Now, Flores finds himself at something of a career crossroads. Either the Mets send him back to St. Lucie, where he will no longer be notably young for the level, or they promote him to Double-A Binghamton on the basis of nothing more than projection.

"In either case, everybody's going to be wanting to see how he does," Mayo said. "If he goes back to St. Lucie, he'd better come out like a house on fire and show that he's too good for the level, and then get a promotion. But if he goes up to Double-A, that's the leap that's hardest to make."

For years now, scouts have insisted that Flores possesses all the proper tools to become an offensive star. The statistics, they have said, will come in time. Whether or not that actually happens remains to be seen. But Flores has already proven one thing: that shortstop is not likely his long-term position.

Though DePodesta does expect Flores to end up somewhere in the infield, the farm boss hesitated when asked last month if shortstop seemed likely.

"This may sound sort of backwards, but I think the bat's going to end up dictating it," DePodesta said. "Whatever happens to be available at the [big league level] when he's ready, that could be where he ends up playing."

Still, DePodesta indicated that Flores will continue to receive more and more exposure at third base and other positions, thereby giving him less and less time at short. Though it is possible that Flores will develop more athletically than most scouts anticipate -- Mayo pointed to Rays former No. 1 overall pick Tim Beckham, who has thus far defied expectations by remaining a shortstop -- Flores is far more likely to make his permanent home elsewhere.

"That's not a bad thing, necessarily," Mayo said. "Does it mean he has slightly less value in the larger scheme of things because he's not an up-the-middle player? I guess, but I don't think it's that big of a deal."

What it does mean, however, is that Flores is extremely unlikely to be the long-term answer at shortstop for the Mets, putting further pressure on Tejada to fill that void.

Beyond those two, the organization's internal landscape thins considerably. The Mets have high hopes for Jordany Valdespin, a natural second baseman, and have given him significant reps at shortstop each of the past two seasons. (It is worth noting that although Valdespin has received merely a fraction of the hype, he has posted better Minor League numbers than Flores over the past few seasons.) And the Mets have a reasonable shortstop prospect in recent 15th-round Draft pick Phillip Evans, but he is just 19 years old and has yet to play a single inning above short-season Class A ball.

Fortunately for the Mets, time is their ally. This year belongs to Tejada. As long as the shortstop performs adequately in his starting debut, next year probably belongs to him, as well.

The rest will sort itself out in time.

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.