How much will Ivan Rodriguez play in 2011?

With all the talk this week about starting pitching, it would be a very good thing if the Nationals' depth at catcher could be bolstered by a healthy return of Jesus Flores, who missed last season with a shoulder injury.

From all indications, general manager Mike Rizzo believes Flores will be back to "100 percent" for spring training. Flores has been limited to 29 games the past two seasons.

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"Jesus Flores had a terrific Venezuelan Winter League. He was happy and healthy, swinging the bat and catching very well," Rizzo said.

Manager Jim Riggleman says that would be crucial to easing the work load for veteran Ivan Rodriguez, so he has a better chance at lasting the entire season injury-free. That would mean more time for either Wilson Ramos or Flores as the season moves along.

"We will give all due respect to Pudge because of everything he has accomplished and all the work he puts in," Riggleman said. "He is a great athlete behind the plate. He is so smooth back there blocking balls. He still throws well."

Riggleman would like to give Rodriguez more days off as the season progresses so one of the younger backstops can get crucial in game experience at the big league level.

"I think ideally we will try to get Pudge 300 at-bats and get the back up guy 300 at-bats," Riggleman said. "It may be a situation where Pudge catches two out of three games earlier on in the season. Then as we get in the middle of the year, maybe Ramos or Flores - whoever is the backup - that person starts catching about half the time and we go from there.

"Certainly, whoever that backup guy is, Pudge is not going to catch forever, so we got to have a guy who is learning our staff and learning the league and filing information away as to how to pitch guys. "We have to have that guy behind the plate more and more as we move along in year 2011."

It will be interesting to see how Flores and Ramos perform in spring training. If Flores returns to his pre-injury health and shows some of the power at the plate he demonstrated in his first season, that would go a long way in proving that the Nats' catching spot is suddenly a position of depth.

The depth is already strong in the farm system with top catching prospect Derek Norris learning quickly and fine tuning his game. Syracuse manager Randy Knorr said Norris just needs to find his comfort zone in his set up and he will continue to advance.

Norris isn't the only catcher in the pipeline. Jhonatan Solano caught the eye of Nats second baseman Danny Espinosa as a player to watch in Double-A Harrisburg. Sandy Leon and Adrian Nieto at Single-A Hagerstown, David Freitas and Cole Leonida at Single-A Vermont, and Gulf Coast League catchers Roberto Perez and Andruth Ramirez give the Nats some solid choices at catcher to build on in the years to come.

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