In Monday’s Mets Minors piece by David Groveman, there was some discussion, both in the article and the comments section, about Wilmer Flores. That’s not that unusual – he is one of the few hitting prospects in the upper levels of the minors and he’s been on Mets Top Prospect lists for half a decade now. One of the topics was Flores versus Daniel Murphy and who was going to deliver more bang for the buck for the Mets.
This dovetailed nicely with some thoughts I had recently in regards to Flores. Perhaps my expectations were too high for a 21 year old in Triple-A but it occurred to me how utterly unimpressive he has been while playing half his games in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in the minors. The easiest thing to do is give him some more time at the level before making a judgment. While that’s good practice for the Mets, it’s not necessarily the right thing for arm chair GMs to do.
That sound you just heard was me jumping off the Flores bandwagon.
Let’s begin talking about Flores’ strengths, what gets people to consider him a top prospect. Before we say anything else, the most important thing Flores has going for him is his age. When Murphy was 21, he was finishing up his junior year of college and playing at three short-season leagues – a world away from performing at the highest level of the minors like Flores is currently. That’s a pretty big thing.
Flores also makes good contact. His 10.6 K% ranks as the seventh-best mark in the Pacific Coast League out of 102 qualified hitters. That’s an outstanding rate for any hitter and the fact that it’s coming for one of the four youngest (full-time) position players in the league makes it all the more outstanding. Oscar Taveras, considered one of the top two prospects in baseball coming into the season, has a 13.4 K%, a rate we would consider excellent. Flores is better.
While his position is unknown, there seems little doubt he will play in the majors as an infielder. Despite their gaping holes in the outfield, the Mets have refused to move him to a corner OF spot, which would seem to be his quickest ticket to the majors. Instead they have Flores, a one-time SS, trying to learn second base, which fuels the Murphy comparisons. Previously, Flores played third base in the minors and some think his ultimate home will come at first base.
So, considering all that – why jump off the bandwagon?
This will be Flores’ sixth year playing in the U.S. and if his current batting rates hold, he’ll have two years where he was a good offensive player – 2008 in the Appalachian League and 2012, split between the Florida State League and the Eastern League. The two years where he spent an entire season at one level – and accumulated 500+ PA – were underwhelming. And the other year where he spent time with two clubs, the promotion felt more forced than anything.
Being young for your league is definitely a good thing. But at some point, you actually have to perform. Flores backers will claim he did just that in 2012, succeeding at two different levels. And that performance still left him off Baseball America’s Top 100 list. That performance failed to get him a notice on MLB.com’s Top 100 prospect list. And even when we crank the list up to 101, like Baseball Prospectus does, Flores does not show up anywhere.
Now, to be sure, inclusion on these lists does not guarantee success. But can you think of one guy who posted an .855 OPS in Double-A at age 20, who didn’t make one of these list and went on to a successful career in the majors? Perhaps that creature exists but no names jump immediately to mind. Usually when a youngster succeeds in the upper levels of the minors before he can legally drink – it gets the prospect hounds buzzed. But with Flores, all it did was create a yawn.
Many of us had visions of Flores tearing things up in Triple-A this year. Not only was he coming off a strong offensive year, he would be playing in a notorious hitters’ park in a notorious hitters’ league. It seemed like a perfect storm. Yet Flores sits with a .762 OPS after 179 PA. Keep in mind that the average OPS of the PCL is .766 and the average OPS of the Las Vegas 51s is .793 here in 2013.
Flores is slightly below average and Cashman Field in Las Vegas is the only thing keeping his numbers respectable. In home games, Flores has an .847 OPS and it’s an ugly .681 in road games. If we take Flores’ home numbers only and plug them into Jeff Sackmann’s MLE calculator, we see his .847 OPS translates into a .657 OPS for the Mets.
Perhaps the Mets were too aggressive placing Flores in Triple-A. Maybe the best thing would have been to start him back in Double-A and look to promote him to Triple-A at mid-season. After all, he would still be young for his league at 21 in the Eastern League. Recently Rob Rogan did research that showed the average age of the Eastern League was over 25.
And that’s it with Flores – it all comes down to age. How do we balance production with age? What are the appropriate bonus points to award and what’s the scale you use to combine that with actual production? If we knew the answer to those questions, we would have a more accurate guide in how to properly rate Flores.
About a decade ago, John Benson and Tony Blengino put out a book where they tackled that very subject. Their method was to divide players by league and compare the player’s OBP and SLG marks to the league average. For each standard deviation from the league average, players would be awarded points in either direction. Then they would give points based on age. They calculated what they called the optimal age and then added or subtracted points based on the difference from the optimum. Here’s what they calculated for each level:
So, if Flores would keep his current stats, he would be essentially league average in production and he would get a +1 for being a year younger than the optimal age for his level. So, he would have a rough score of 1.00 in this combined approach.
In 1999, that +1.00 would have rated him the 81st-best age-adjusted hitter in the minors. The top score was a 6.64 by Nick Johnson. Too bad their system didn’t have an injury component. Regardless, we see that 23-year-old Lance Berkman scored a 1.51, even after subtracting one from his production score since he was above the optimal age for the PCL. It’s better to be 23 and raking in Triple-A than 21 and hitting around league average.
The Benson/Blengino approach is most certainly not the final word on the subject. However, it is a systematic approach to the question we are most interested in and the results are hardly inspiring. Even building in an age component does not vault Flores onto a Top 100 prospects list, as his 81st rank did not include pitchers.
Obviously, it’s still early and it is reasonable to see if Flores heats up as the season progresses. Last year, in his first 175 PA at Double-A, Flores had a .263/.310/.406 line. He then proceeded to go .396/.450/.648 over his final 100 PA to finish with his .855 OPS.
So, did Flores just need an adjustment time for the higher level or was his stretch run last year simply the result of a .421 BABIP hot streak? It all depends on how you want to look at it. If nothing else, it gives a potential reason why Flores’ best results come when he doesn’t play a full season at just one level.
As for me, if someone offered me a league average OF straight up for Flores – let’s call him Chris Denorfia (who has a .758 OPS compared to NL average .756 OPS for an outfielder) – I do that trade in a heartbeat, even though Denorfia turns 33 in July. Denorfia’s ability to play any outfield position, along with being able to slot him in at leadoff makes this a no-brainer in my mind given the Mets’ current outfield options.
Despite this being his sixth year in the minors, we have no idea what Flores is as a hitter. Will he hit for a high average? Will he hit a bunch of homers? I don’t think anyone knows, which is a bit scary. Where will he play in the majors? The current speculation is second base but the Mets currently have an above-average player at the position in Murphy. And that doesn’t even take into account how Flores would be defensively. As a former shortstop, you would think he would be a good option. But no one has ever raved about his defense.
There are just too many questions surrounding Flores. What type of hitter will he be? Will he be able to be average defensively at any position in the diamond? How do we accurately judge his production while accounting for his age? Was 2012 a breakout year or a well-timed Double-A hot streak? Why you would wager on most of those questions turning out the right way for the Mets and trade Murphy to create a spot for him is beyond me.