Until last year, Wilmer Flores had spent his entire professional career — from the time that he was signed out of Venezuela on his 16th birthday in 2007 through the ’18 season — with the Mets. After being non-tendered in November 2018, he landed with the Diamondbacks and put together the best season of his career, at least from an offensive standpoint. This week, he parlayed that success into a modest two-year, $6 million deal with the Giants, who suddenly have a rather crowded infield.
Flores, who’s still just 28 years old, hit a sizzling .317/.361/.487 for a 120 wRC+ in 2019, numbers that represent across-the-board career highs. That said, he missed nearly two months after suffering a fracture in his right foot when he was hit by a Drew Pomeranz pitch on May 19, and wound up making only 285 plate appearances, his lowest total at the major league level since 2014. When he wasn’t pinch-hitting — which he did 23 times, hitting just .190/.261/.238 — he played mostly second base, making 56 of his 60 starts and 64 of his 80 total defensive appearances there; the balance of his appearances came at first base. Even in that limited playing time, his 1.1 WAR was his highest mark since 2015.
Thirty-one of Flores’ starts at second base came against lefties — whom he hit to the tune of a 151 wRC+ — and all but a handful of those starts bumped Ketel Marte to center field. That the Diamondbacks desired to move Marte back to the infield in hopes that it would be less physically demanding likely played a big role in the team’s decision to decline Flores’ $6 million option for 2020; instead, they paid him a $500,000 buyout. Last week, Arizona acquired center fielder Starling Marte from the Pirates so as to further the Ketel-to-the-Keystone plan.
Particularly given that Flores hasn’t played third base since 2018 (and just 72 innings at that) or shortstop since ’16 — and shouldn’t, barring a life-threatening emergency, if his DRS for those positions is to be believed — it appears that his opportunities will be confined to the right side of the infield. This is where it gets a little tricky.
The righty-swinging Flores is a natural fit as a platoon partner for incumbent first baseman Brandon Belt. In addition to last year’s sizzling performance, Flores owns a career wRC+ mark of 116 against lefties. That’s just four points better than the lefty-swinging Belt’s career mark against southpaws, but Belt has managed just an 85 wRC+ in that context over the past three seasons, hitting that number exactly in 159 PA against them in 2019.
As for second base, well, Flores is no threat to win a Gold Glove. Per UZR, last year he was 3.6 runs below average in just 442.2 innings, and while his career -3.2 UZR/150 suggests he’s playable there, similarly prorating his DRS yields 13 runs below average. Beyond his defensive shortcomings at second is the presence of other options, starting with Mauricio Dubón, a 25-year-old prospect who was part of the return in the July 31 deal that sent Pomeranz to Milwaukee. A 45 Future Value prospect at the time of the trade, he hit .274/.306/.434 (95 wRC+) in 111 PA in his first taste of big league action, the bulk of which (21 out of 28 starts) came at the keystone. Also on hand is 32-year-old journeyman utilityman Donovan Solano, who after totaling just 114 PA in the majors from 2014-18 came out of nowhere to hit .330/.360/.456 for a 116 wRC+, 32 points above his career norm.
To that mix, add this week’s signing of 27-year-old switch-hitter Yolmer Sánchez to a minor league deal, reportedly after he bypassed two major league deals so that he could compete for the Giants’ starting job. Sánchez is coming off a dreadful year at the plate (.252/.318/.321, 74 wRC+), but he was worth a combined 4.0 WAR in 2017-18 while batting .253/.312/.390 (91 wRC+) over that span. He’s a worse hitter against lefties than righties (career wRC+ marks of 70 and 81, respectively) but he can flat out pick it; at second, he posted a 4.9 UZR and 11 DRS in 2019, and owns career per-150 marks of 6.3 UZR and 11 DRS, and he’s similarly strong at third base, where he spent most of 2018.
For good measure, the Giants also recently re-signed Pablo Sandoval to a minor league deal. The 33-year-old cult favorite hit .268/.313/.507 (110 wRC+) with 14 homers in just 296 PA before undergoing Tommy John surgery in September. While he could claim playing time at first base when he returns in midsummer, his career 80 wRC+ against lefties suggests he wouldn’t cut into Flores’ time there. Follow the money: Flores is the only player from among this handful who has a guaranteed major league deal, so it figures he’ll get to play.
The addition of Flores makes more sense in the context of a reimagined Giants’ infield, which probably isn’t out of the question given president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi’s commitment to rebuilding. Belt, who turns 32 on April 20, hit for just a 99 wRC+ last year, his third straight in decline, and has just two years and $32 million remaining on his five-year deal. Shortstop Brandon Crawford is 33, coming off a dreadful 2019 (74 wRC+, 0.4 WAR), also left-handed, and similarly owed $30 million over the next two seasons. It’s plausible that both Brandons get some time to restore their value before getting moved, but from this vantage, if the newcomers and lower-paid holdovers are outplaying them, then it wouldn’t be too great a surprise to see an August lineup with Dubon at shortstop — where our prospect team deemed him “passable,” an assumption worth testing amid a rebuilding effort — with Sánchez at second, and Flores at first, or a Dubon-Flores-Sandoval alignment, or Solano-Dubon-Flores. At the very least, a Dubon-Flores middle infield combo against southpaws could be a more common occurrence.
Here it’s worth noting that Steamer is a bit more optimistic about Flores’ offense (.280/.331/.462, 108 wRC+) than ZiPS, though neither is particularly close to last year’s performance, which according to the player wasn’t the result of any particular breakthrough. ““No changes,” he told The Athletic’s Zach Buchanan in early September. “I don’t think I’ve made any adjustment that I hadn’t made earlier in the season. I’m just getting a good pitch to hit and putting a good swing on it.”
A quick peek at Flores’ Statcast numbers suggests that he wasn’t hitting the ball any harder or better except with respect to 2018, when he hit a very representative .267/.319/.417 (102 wRC+):
|Year||Barrel %||Hard Hit %||EV||LA||wOBA||xwOBA|
What Flores did do in 2019, however, was make more frequent contact while swinging less often:
His newfound selectivity didn’t entirely pay off in terms of his walk and strikeout rates, but that’s still a very contact-oriented profile. Where things really appeared to come together was in two-strike counts. Where Flores hit just .231/.293/.355 (80 wRC+) in 2018 and .214/.256/.317 (56 wRC+) with a 25.4% with two strikes from ’13-18, he hit 276/.326/.388 (87 wRC+) with a 21.5% strikeout rate in ’19, well ahead of the NL averages for non-pitchers (48 wRC+, 40.9% strikeout rate).
Can Flores repeat that, or his strong 2019 showing in general? I don’t know, but I don’t see any reason to be particularly skeptical, and it won’t cost too much for the Giants to find out. Flores now has a bit of security with his multi-year deal, and even a club option (whose value hasn’t been reported yet). Particularly given the likelihood that he’s something in the vicinity of a one-win part-timer, the Giants likely have a bargain on their hands.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.