By Ernie Palladino
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Had the abandoned Carlos Gomez trade gone the other way, Wilmer Flores would not be a Met right now.
If the Mets hadn’t been so desperate for offense last year, Michael Conforto might have been spending 2016 toiling in Triple-A, a level above the one they elevated him from last year.
For those two, spring training has become a time of happy adjustment. While Yoenis Cespedes fools around with three-wheeled and four-legged modes of transportation, Flores and Conforto haven’t the dough nor the inclination to place themselves in that particular spotlight.
Between Flores bouncing between two infield positions and Conforto hitting the back field to work on his hitting against left-handers, their dance cards are way too full for silly displays. And the stakes are way too high, considering where each stood around midseason of 2015.
Conforto was still in the midst of a 45-game stretch at Double-A Binghamton, where a .312 average and .899 OPS gave general manager Sandy Alderson the idea that it might be worthwhile to rush the kid up to Flushing for the final 56 games.
And who can forget Flores, teary-eyed at shortstop that late July evening after hearing he was heading to Milwaukee for the powerful Gomez. Only, he wasn’t. He remained the Mets’ starting shortstop until they ran Ruben Tejada out there, and took over again in the playoffs when Chase Utley settled the issue once and for all.
Now, as the exhibition season has gotten underway, Flores and Conforto are adjusting to different circumstances. Flores is a support player now, as newly acquired Asdrubal Cabrera pushed him out of his starting position. He’s strictly a utility player now, his season pointing toward pinch-hitting, spelling David Wright at third to keep him healthy, and subbing for Lucas Duda at first to add some lineup punch against lefties.
Flores might even see some work at second and shortstop against the real good southpaws.
It’s the first base work that presents his biggest challenge, of course. Flores has never played there before. But he’s not complaining.
Besides, he got used to switching positional gears in the minor leagues.
“I’ve moved around my whole career, so I’ll be ready for whatever they want me to do,” Flores told the media in Port St. Lucie. “I haven’t played much first, but I know I can learn.”
Not that his manager Terry Collins expects any unseemly squawking.
“We need Wilmer to handle it like a veteran,” Collins told the media.
No problem. No one knows better than Flores that there are worse things than serving as part of a deep bench on a defending pennant winner. Milwaukee, for one.
While Flores tries to keep from getting dizzy from his journey around the infield, the left-handed hitting Conforto has a different adjustment to make. He wants to be the everyday left fielder. But Collins won’t pencil him in there until he proves he can hit southpaws. Until then, Juan Lagares will take those at-bats and play center, with Cespedes moving to left.
So out Conforto goes with hitting coach Kevin Long to the back field, where left-handed pitchers throw him batting practice behind a protective screen set at different angles. The idea is to get him accustomed to reacting to various release points.
If Long’s program succeeds, Conforto should have no problem getting more than the 14 at-bats (.214 BA) he had against major league lefties last year.
“I think I look forward to get the opportunity to get to see some guys throwing from that side,” Conforto said.
If it doesn’t work out, platooning is hardly the worst thing that can happen to a young player.
Flores and Conforto have a spring of adjustment ahead of them. Neither has entered a zone where they can ride into spring training on moon landers and thoroughbreds.
But both also know it’s a lot easier to adjust as part of a winner.
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