Latin Link: Wilmer Flores, Jaime Garcia and playoff predictions

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Wilmer Flores
Wilmer Flores has been all smiles for New York Mets fans since the trade deadline.

When I went to confession the other day, I revealed to the priest I had wrongfully slighted a major league player with with some less-than-kind words.

No, I’m not talking about Hanley Ramirez, the moody, egotistical Dominican who, as I predicted, signed a lucrative free-agent deal this past winter with the Boston Red Sox. Before agreeing to his four-year, $88 million pact, Ramirez stated he would have no problem patrolling the Green Monster in left field for Boston, the team that originally inked him in 2000. But with his numbers down in almost every offensive category, the fading 31-year-old superstar now says he has always been an infielder and desires to play first base. So, as usual, Hanley will get what Hanley wants because as the Red Sox hope to improve, an expensive veteran who cries and complains is bad for morale.

I also refuse to take back anything I’ve said about Starlin Castro. After five frustrating years of catering to Castro and his frequent mental hiccups, the Chicago Cubs All-Star shortstop was recently stung with a demotion of sorts, losing his job to rookie Addison Russell. That decision, coupled with the call-up of Puerto Rico’s Javier Baez, has seemed to shock Castro back to reality. But while he’s been a terror at the plate in September, Starlin has not adapted well to his transition as a second baseman. With his defensive percentage dropping to an embarrassing .933 at that position, I would guess Castro is not a happy camper and a prime trade candidate this winter.

I must admit, however, I misjudged Wilmer Flores, the New York Mets budding star who has been in the news quite a bit lately. It had been my opinion the Mets were making a big mistake by penciling in Flores as their regular shortstop at the start of the season, and at the time I was correct. But then something clicked when manager Terry Collins quietly moved Flores to second base, and the youngster’s confidence began to soar.

“I just feel more comfortable there,” Wilmer candidly admitted. “I don’t know the reason.”

At 6′-3″ and 205 pounds, I’ve always labeled Flores as a future corner outfielder. What matters, though, is that the 24-year-old Venezuelan now trusts himself more to play anywhere on the diamond, thanks to that brief period of success at second base. That’s important because with the return of David Wright at third base, Daniel Murphy will get most of the starts at second and Flores has once again returned to shortstop with Ruben Tejada, albeit with far less jitters. I think a lot of credit should go to Collins, a veteran skipper who talks tough while having a good instinctual feel for his players. He understood this kid was struggling on defense, and an adjustment needed to be made so his powerful bat could remain in the lineup. It was just a temporary tweak, but it worked. And kudos to Wilmer Flores for making the mental adjustments needed to help his team. It’s not easy playing in the Big Apple, but you’ve cleared a major hurdle, Wilmer, and I wish you well.

Postseason possibilities

Speaking of the Mets, it’s now certain that at least one team from New York will be playing in October. The offensive punch provided by Flores and Juan Uribe has been punctuated by the arrival of Yeonis Cespedes, who has put up MVP numbers while becoming the new “King of Queens.” I find it ironic that after all the hype surrounding a possible trade for Yasiel Puig, another Cuban with a more established resume like Cespedes has come to the rescue. The big challenge for the Mets, of course, will be to resign Cespedes to a new deal. But the flamboyant slugger loves the New York spotlight, and that will certainly help smooth out the process.

Now that Mark Teixeira is out for the season and the Yankees pitching staff is on life support, a five-team race for three postseason spots has now come into play in the American League. With the Kansas City Royals and the Toronto Blue Jays on cruise control as eventual division champs, a dogfight has developed between the Yankees, Texas Rangers, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Minnesota Twins. It would be incredible if the guys from Minneapolis pulled an upset, but there’s just not enough horses in the barn. And based on the Yankees brutal schedule, I can see the possibility of three teams from the AL West still playing next month.

The scenario will be the same in the NL Central, which has become the toughest division in baseball. I’m looking forward to the heavyweight match-up between the Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates, although the Bucs still have an outside chance to win the division. It seems almost unfair that the loser will be one and done, but the St. Louis Cardinals reside in the same neighborhood and still have the best record in baseball despite a September swoon. Why? Because they have the game’s best catcher in Yadier Molina and the deepest starting rotation. Youngsters Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez are the studs, veteran John Lackey is the workhorse and, even when ace Adam Wainwright went down with a torn Achilles tendon, savvy southpaw Jaime Garcia came along later to help fill the void.

Garcia himself has hardly been the picture of health. The 28-year-old native of Reynosa, Mexico, has spent nearly half of his career on the shelf, dealing with everything from Tommy John surgery to labrum issues and rotator cuff repair. Then last season, Garcia went under the knife again in July for a condition known as thoracic outlet syndrome, a nerve problem that causes numbness in the throwing hand and shooting pain from the neck and armpit after every pitch. That procedure finished the lefty at a critical part of the season and drew some articulate anger from St. Louis General Manager John Mozeliak, who had hoped his pitcher would opt for rest and rehab instead.

Lingering problems from that surgery affected Garcia early on in the current campaign, and a groin injury would complicate matters. Beginning in mid-July, however, Jaime would go on a 5-0 roll over seven starts, featuring a sinker and nasty change-up that kept Cardinal infielders busy with plenty of ground balls. And despite a poor start on September 10, the crafty Mexican has compiled a nifty 2.33 ERA, tops among current Cardinal starters. Meanwhile, Mozeliak hasn’t been whining quite so much lately, and St. Louis is expected to pick up its $11.5 million team option on Garcia for the 2016 season.

I love it.

Final stretch notes

Another Missouri team that has been somewhat mediocre of late is the Kansas City Royals. But the defending American League champions ran away with their division long ago and are simply trying to stay healthy now that Alex Gordon is back. And while Johnny Cueto has mysteriously scuffled, my man Yordano Ventura is back on the beam with a 4-1 record over his last seven starts with 2.51 ERA. Also, Cuban slugger Kendrys Morales continues to rake with 17 big flies and 101 RBI, in addition to hitting at a .345 clip over his last 15 games.

Carlos Gomez is finally starting to experience some success with his new team in Houston, simply because he’s just having fun in meaningful games and not trying to do too much. The big story in my book, though, is the play of long-overlooked Marwin Gonzalez. The 26-year-old Venezuelan switch-hitter has been a huge surprise at the plate, along with solving the Astros first base production. Gonzalez is another guy I’ve doubted in the past, but I’ve become a fan just because of the way he nonchalantly makes difficult plays look like a walk in the park. I think the boys in Houston might make it to the finish line with at least a wild card spot, but their poor road record almost makes a division title a necessity.

The talented Los Angeles Dodgers are looking good and have certainly proved that it helps to hire the best personnel money can buy. The residents of Chavez Ravine have baseball’s highest payroll at a staggering $272 million, and they don’t even have to pay Hanley anymore. But the team’s highest paid position player, Adrian Gonzalez, is worth every penny because he has become the heart and soul of this franchise. Aside from his role as a team leader, Gonzalez leads the Dodgers in home runs, RBI and doubles, along with a .997 fielding percentage as an All-Star first baseman. That’s value, folks.

It’s also worth mentioning that Dodger scouts continue to do their Latino homework. Five of the organizations’s top 10 prospects are of Hispanic descent, headed by teenage Mexican lefty Julio Urias. Another Fernando Valenzuela in progress perhaps? Who knows, but the huge Los Angeles Spanish-speaking community is excited about their Dodgers.

Finally, this notation might not have anything to do with October baseball. Nonetheless, I want to extend my personal congrats to David Ortiz, who blasted his 500th career jack of his 19-year career on September 12. Ortiz, who will be 40 next month, has already achieved the 425 plate appearances needed for his $11 million deal to kick in for 2016. That means there will be more balls leaving the yard next year, which is good news for Red Sox fans who crave to be entertained. The bad news is that Yankees DH Alex Rodriguez has hit 685 bombs, a mark that Ortiz will never surpass.

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