Wilmer Flores was the starting Mets shortstop Friday night in the Citi Field opener of a three game series with the Phillies. Like all Met fans, I’m hoping Flores proves he can handle the defensive rigors of playing the position and his bat lives up to the huge upside many have projected.
With that said, I’m hoping the Flores elevation to the big stage does not mean the Mets have minimized the possibilities of another middle infielder in their minor league system, Wilfredo Tovar.
I watch a lot of Binghamton Met baseball. The more trips I make to NYSEG Stadium to watch the B-Mets perform, the more I come away impressed with the play of Wilfredo Tovar. He is the hard nosed, gritty, slick fielding middle infielder of the B-Mets and plays the game the way it was meant to be payed; focused, intense and fearlessly.
Tovar has been named by Baseball America as the best defensive player in the Mets farm system for the last four seasons and over the first five weeks of the 2014 season, he has been spectacular. There seems to be no ceiling on what Tovar can do with the leather and with his great baseball instincts, a superb first step and his bullet like arm provides the plucky B-Met infielder with the full defensive complement. I have come to anticipate some Tovar defensive wizardry as part of a typical B-Met baseball experience and he almost never disappoints.
As the Mets continue to struggle offensively, as their run production lags behind that of almost every team in the National League, it would be easy to sacrifice defensive tools to the promise of scoring more runs. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, an understandable response by Met fans.
Still, the Mets are a team in the midst of a rebuild based on quality pitching. Strong defensive play and quality pitching go hand-in-hand, because the better a team’s defense the better their pitcher’s pitch. Pitching confidence swells when they release the ball knowing they have leather support behind them in the field. Two runs saved in the field may not earn the same respect as two runs banged home at the plate, but the impact on a game is similar. As an old timer who marveled at the pluck, at the fire, at the defensive consistency of Bud Harrelson so many years ago, I simply cannot downplay the importance defense plays in the success of pitching strong baseball teams.
The impressive part of the Wilfredo Tovar story is the fact that the little shortstop doesn’t only speak with his glove, he talks with his bat. Since the Eastern League all-star game last summer, Tovar has raked at the plate. This spring, he has been the B-Mets toughest out. Through five weeks and 86 at bats, Tovar is hitting .349, trailing only back up catcher Xorge Carrillo who is batting .375. Tovar’s .823 OPS is the third best on the team, trailing 7 home run slugger Matt Clark and Carrillo.
Even more impressive is the fact that Tovar is a tough out at the plate; a contact hitter who rarely strikes out, reminding you of those pesky middle infielders of earlier baseball eras. With all the strikeouts at Citi Field, Tovar’s ability to make contact with the ball is almost refreshing. In his 86 at bats so far, Tovar has struck out only four times. Carrillo is the only other B-Met batter who has fanned in single digits, but the B-Met catcher has fewer than half the at-bats of Tovar.
Tovar’s ability to make contact has made him a clutch hitter who bats toward the back of the B-Met lineup and he has knocked home 15 runs already for the B-Mets trailing only the long ball hitting Clark who has 20.
The Venezuela native is part of an interesting experiment this spring in Binghamton. Last year’s everyday B-Met shortstop is alternating on a daily basis with Matt Reynolds, with one middle infielder playing shortstop and one second base then alternating the following day. The back-and-forth positioning has had no ill effects on either B-Met infielder, because to date, Reynolds is hitting .339 for the B-Mets.
Although on one hand, I hate to say it, because watching Wilfredo Tovar play baseball is one of my favorite parts of attending B-Met Double-A games in Binghamton, but with the Flores ascent to Citi Field, Tovar really needs to be reassigned to Las Vegas to play the middle infield for the 51’s. Even though Tovar is only 22 years old, 2014 is Tovar’s sixth season with the Mets organization. With the fluid situation at shortstop in Flushing, it’s time to increase the stakes for Wildfredo and see how he fares. I, for one, am confident Tovar is up to the test and will get the job done wherever he plays.