Sunday, August 11, 2013

Wilmer Flores: The Anti-Gregg Jefferies

Be very thankful Wilmer Flores is nothing like Gregg Jefferies.

Say the name Gregg Jefferies to any long-time Mets fan and you'll get various reactions.  Some people loved his spunk and appreciated his contributions to the team as it pushed toward the 1988 NL East title.  Other cringe upon hearing his name because of the negative effects he had on the clubhouse and the team's chemistry.

Gregg Jefferies had a remarkable final five weeks of the 1988 season.  When he played his first game after his promotion on August 28, the Mets held a 6½-game lead over the second place Pittsburgh Pirates.  But Jefferies collected 24 hits in his first 13 games after the call-up, including seven doubles, two triples and five homers.  During that 13-game stretch, the Mets increased their division lead to 11 games.  With Jefferies leading the offensive charge, the Mets ended up outpacing the Pirates by 15 games to win their second division title in three years.

Jefferies fared well in his first playoff experience, reaching base 14 times (nine hits, four walks, one hit-by-pitch).  But the Mets failed to advance to the World Series, losing the NLCS to the underdog Dodgers in seven games.  Some say the reason for the team's failures in the postseason was due to Jefferies breaking up the lineup, reducing several regulars to part-time players and sending some part-time players to the bench.

You see, Jefferies was a man without a position.  His best position on the field was hitter.  When Jefferies started at third base, which he did 19 times during the regular season and in all seven playoff games, Howard Johnson moved into a platoon with shortstop Kevin Elster.  A southpaw on the mound would have Jefferies and Elster manning the left side of the infield, while a right-handed pitcher would allow for switch-hitters Jefferies and Johnson (who was a far better hitter from the left side of the plate) to play together.  Jefferies also played ten games at second base (eight starts).  That put him in a platoon with the right-handed hitting Tim Teufel, sending Wally Backman to the bench.  The veteran Backman would only start when Jefferies was needed at third base and only against right-handed pitchers.  Needless to say, that irked a lot of the established players on the team.  It also didn't help that Jefferies was a spoiled brat.

After a stellar 1988 campaign, a year in which he finished sixth in the Rookie of the Year vote despite retaining his rookie status for 1989, Jefferies suffered at the plate in his "second" rookie season.  The 21-year-old batted .258 in 1989 with 12 homers, 56 RBI and 21 stolen bases.  Those numbers weren't horrible for such a young player, but they were far short of what the Mets were expecting from him.  After all, his .314 on-base percentage was lower than his batting average (.321) the year before.

Jefferies actually led the league in doubles in 1990, becoming only the second Met to reach 40 doubles in a season (Howard Johnson became the first in 1989).  Jefferies also raised his batting average to .283, hit 15 homers and scored a team-high 96 runs, which at the time was the sixth-highest total in franchise history.  But he ran less (only 11 steals) and pouted more.  He was also becoming more of a liability in the field.

Gregg Jefferies.  Alone.  Which is where most of the team wanted to see him.

As the team's second baseman in 1989 and 1990, Jefferies finished with the third-most errors at the position in '89 and the fifth-most errors in '90.  In each season, he committed a dozen errors.  He was also terrible at turning the double play, combining to participate in 90 double plays during the two seasons.  How low was that total compared to his fellow second basemen around the league?  Well, in 1989 alone, second baseman (and former Met) Jose Oquendo turned 109 double plays.  Also in 1989, second baseman (and future Met) Roberto Alomar participated in 91 double plays.  That's more double plays than Jefferies helped turn in 1989 and 1990 combined.

By 1991, the Mets got fed up waiting for Jefferies to blossom into what they thought he'd become following the 1988 season.  Jefferies failed to reach double digits in home runs and saw his batting average drop to .272 in '91.  After a 40-double campaign in 1990, Jefferies produced only 30 extra-base hits (19 doubles, two triples, nine homers) in his final season as a Met.  That offseason, Jefferies was shipped off to Kansas City as part of a five-player deal that brought two-time Cy Young Award winner Bret Saberhagen to New York.

Jefferies did blossom after Kansas City traded him to St. Louis following the 1992 campaign, achieving career highs in batting average (.342), home runs (16), RBI (83) and stolen bases (46) with the Cardinals in 1993.  In fact, from 1993 to 1998, Jefferies batted .304, collected 233 extra-base hits and stole 111 bases despite missing nearly 200 games due to an assortment of injuries.

Gregg Jefferies was a man without a position when he was promoted to the Mets for good in 1988 (he played in six games for the Mets in 1987), but hit his way into the lineup.  Unfortunately, his teammates didn't like losing playing time to a player who whined and complained more often than he reached base during his time with the Mets.

That brings us (finally!) to Wilmer Flores.  Over the past two seasons, Flores has torn up minor league pitching to the tune of a .310 batting average, 66 doubles, six triples, 33 homers and 161 RBI in only 917 at-bats.  He's done this while bouncing around from position to position in the infield.  He played third base at St. Lucie.  Upon being promoted to Binghamton, he started to play more at second base.  This year, he played 11 games at first base at Las Vegas.

Now Wilmer Flores is with the big club, where he has moved back to third base to fill in for the injured David Wright.  In his first six games with the Mets, Flores hasn't produced all the extra-base hits Jefferies did a quarter century ago.  However, he is driving in a boatload of runs.  After an 0-for-4 debut on August 6, Flores has driven in runs in each of his last five games.  Flores hit his first homer on Sunday and has nine RBI in less than a week of service time, becoming only the third Met to drive in that many runs in his first six games with the team.  (Mike Jacobs and John Buck are the others.)  Flores has also had two games with three RBI, something that Jefferies did only once in 1988.

Both Flores and Jefferies were infielders in their early 20s when they became everyday players with the Mets.  Additionally, neither player had a true position when he was called up to the big leagues.  But there's one big difference between the two players.  Humility.

Unlike Gregg Jefferies, Wilmer Flores is not going to embarrass himself or his teammates on the field.  He still admits that he's nervous every time he steps onto the field and is not trying to take anyone's job, unlike Jefferies, who felt it was his right to be out there.  Flores is still learning.  Jefferies thought he knew it all.  It's because of that that Flores has a much better chance to be a success as a Met than Jefferies ever was.

Gregg Jefferies came up to the Mets in the middle of a pennant race.  After flourishing for a few weeks, Jefferies started showing that he was not a hitting machine like his idol, Ty Cobb.  However, he did rub people the wrong way like Cobb did.  Wilmer Flores is playing for a team that is not in playoff contention.  He's enjoying the moment, rather than trying to prove that he is the second coming of someone he's not.

Soon after Jefferies became a regular with the Mets, the team started falling apart.  The 2013 Mets are a team on the rise.  And Wilmer Flores is trying to become part of that rising team.  The word "team" was never a part of Gregg Jefferies' vocabulary while he was on the Mets.  We should all be thankful that Wilmer Flores is the anti-Gregg Jefferies when it comes to being a part of the team.  Success as a group is far more satisfying.

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