A peek behind the plate

A year ago at this time, the Nationals were flush with catchers. Ivan Rodriguez was entering the second season of a two-year contract and Wilson Ramos, acquired the previous summer in a trading deadline deal from Minnesota for Matt Capps, was poised for a breakthrough and pushing for playing time. Jesus Flores was finally ready to return after missing most of two seasons with a variety of shoulder injuries and Derek Norris was waiting in the wings in the minors, ready to shake off a concussion from 2010. The Nationals had Jhonatan Solano, Sandy Leon, Adrian Nieto and David Freitas deeper in the minor league pipeline.

My, how one offseason can change the landscape.

Rodriguez is gone, pushed out by Ramos’ rapid development and Flores’ long-awaited recovery. Pudge is still out of work, meaning his quest for 3,000 career hits - he’s 156 hits shy after 21 major league seasons - is on hold. There’s not a thriving market for 40-year-old backup backstops, though Rodriguez still has a lot of knowledge to offer and his relentless dedication to a demanding fitness regimen somewhat offsets his age.

Norris is gone, traded to the A’s in the deal that landed left-hander Gio Gonzalez, a swap that cost the Nationals four top prospects. He was the organization’s catcher of the future for so long, it’s hard to believe Norris is only
23 and had only reached as high as Double-A Harrisburg, where he hit .210 with 20 homers and 46 RBIs last year. Norris’ career. 403 on-base percentage in the minors fits nicely with general manager Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” emphasis in Oakland, so it’s no surprise he was part of the deal. Norris is still at least a year away, if he figures a way to bump up his batting average and doesn’t focus on swinging for the fences. But his departure from the organization creates a wide gap in the depth chart.

Ramos is set as the Nationals’ primary catcher for 2012 (and beyond) and Flores is his backup. Flores was a popular subject of conversation when opposing GMs engaged Washington’s Mike Rizzo in offseason talks and his performance in the Venezuelan Winter League - where he hit .330 with eight homers and 39 RBIs with a .368 OPB, .514 slugging percentage and .881 OPS - means teams that come up with a hole behind the plate will continue to pester Rizzo during spring training.

But can Rizzo really entertain any notions of trading Flores? And if he does, who is the backup catcher?

Right now, it’s probably either the 26-year-old Solano or veteran Carlos Maldonado, a perennial insurance policy in camp as a non-roster invitee. The two shared time with Flores at Triple-A Syracuse last season, Solano hitting .275 with five homers and 33 RBIs in 78 games and the 33-year-old Maldonado batting .234 with a homer and 12 RBIs in 38 games. Solano has his backers in the organization, and he’s definitely more of a catch-and-throw guy than an offensive threat. Maldonado is the kind of backup every team loves to have in reserve, a guy who does a little of everything well and doesn’t complain about his job description.

None of the other options are really ready for prime time. The 22-year-old Freitas is probably the most advanced hitter of the group, having batted .288 with 13 homers and driven in 73 runs at low Single-A Hagerstown last year, his second pro season. Leon, also 22, may have the most overall upside, and was the primary receiver at advanced Single-A Potomac in 2011, where he hit .251 with six homers and 43 RBIs. The 21-year-old Nieto played at three levels last year, but primarily at short-season Single-A Auburn, where he hit .302 with four homers and 22 RBIs.

The Nationals will likely hold onto Flores, who was plucked from the Mets’ system in the 2006 Rule 5 draft and anointed the Nationals’ future behind the plate, unless they get an offer they can’t refuse. It would be easy to scour the waiver wire for a contingency plan should that happen, picking up a guy to catch a day or two a week. As usual, some teams have been hoarding catchers this offseason, and there won’t be room for every guy in camp throughout the organization, particularly if a team has a promising prospect it doesn’t want to block.

A reunion with Rodriguez isn’t even out of the question, but it’s not probable unless the Nationals get caught short. Rodriguez would be open to a return - he said so at the end of last season, intrigued by the young arms the Nats have been collecting - and doesn’t seem to have many suitors. He’d have to understand Ramos’ presence would mean sparse playing time, but Pudge parted ways with the Nationals on good terms.

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