VIERA, Fla. - Jesus Flores’ impressive performance in the Venezuelan Winter League this offseason was almost offset by the kidnapping of his friend and teammate, Wilson Ramos. Now, Flores has his mind set on showing the Nationals he can again be a starting catcher, even if it means doing so at Ramos’ expense.
Unseating Ramos will be an uphill battle, since Ramos is viewed as Washington’s top backstop entering 2012 after batting .267 with 15 homers and 52 RBIs in 113 games as a rookie last season. Flores battled back from shoulder injuries that cost him most of two seasons to play in 30 games last year, and he experienced an offensive renaissance with the Navegantes de Magallanes, hitting .330 with eight homers and 39 RBIs in 56 games.
Pitchers and catchers aren’t required to report to Space Coast Stadium until Sunday, but Flores was one of a gaggle of early arrivals. He’s determined to show the Nats that the shoulder problems that once threatened a promising career are behind him.
“It was hard for me,” he said of his recovery. “It kind of took a while.”
Where Flores was tentative at this time last year, unsure of how his right shoulder would hold up to the rigors of catching, he’s much more confident than ever now. The offensive outburst in Venezuela wasn’t the only positive development for the 27-year-old, who is once again sure of his defensive abilities.
“Winter ball gave me the opportunity again to gain all that confidence and feel sure of myself, that I can really play every day and be the (same) player,” he said. “It was 250 at-bats in two months, and I think that’s pretty good. ... The most important thing for me is I was healthy the whole time. A couple of issues, but it wasn’t my shoulder.”
He’s ready to catch again, but is Flores content to be a backup?
“Good question, (but) hard to answer right now,” he said Saturday afternoon. “I don’t feel like I’m that kind of catcher right now. I think I still have a lot of future. I’m still young for a catcher. Let’s see. That’s not my dream, but right now, I’m where I am and I just need to do my job.”
Flores wouldn’t say whether he’d approached general manager Mike Rizzo about a trade, but the Nationals don’t have a lot of major league-ready depth behind the plate. Past Ramos and Flores, the only catcher in camp with big league experience is veteran Carlos Maldonado, who signed a minor league deal with a spring training invitation.
While he welcomes the chance to compete with Ramos, Flores wants to focus on building on what happened over the winter. He hopes his performance in Venezuela proved to any doubters that he’s back to his old self.
“I hope so. It helped me a lot just to feel like the Jesus Flores I was before - at least 100 percent, all healthy,” he said. “I know what I can do right now. I just want to go out there and do my job and it’s up from there to (the front office). It’s their decision, whatever they want to do.”
Because he also played in his homeland of Venezuela, Flores carefully followed what happened in November, when Ramos was kidnapped by armed men and held hostage for two days before being rescued. Flores had his car stolen by men brandishing guns two years ago in Venezuela, and he’s well aware of the dangers in his native country. That’s why he employed a bodyguard while playing winter ball and traveled only sparingly while there.
“When I saw (Ramos), when he got free and we knew there was nothing wrong, no damage - that was good news,” Flores said. “We cried when we see each other. ... For him to be through that situation, it wasn’t fun.”
But even private security details aren’t enough to stop brazen attempts by his countrymen to make a quick payday by ransoming a well-paid professional ballplayer, Flores said.
“We’re now playing scared (in Venezuela),” he said. “Just try to go to the ballpark and back home and take it easy. If you’re going somewhere, just try to be safe, make sure people know where you’re going because you make a mistake, you never know where they are. It’s everywhere. It’s like rats, looking for someone to do their damage (to).”
Roll call: Who’s in camp already? Besides Flores, position players to arrive early include Danny Espinosa, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Desmond, Chad Tracey, Roger Bernadina and Jarrett Hoffpauir.
Pitchers who have already showed up are Ryan Perry, Matt Purke, Edwin Jackson, Jordan Zimmermann, Tom Gorzelanny, John Lannan, Ross Detwiler, Brad Lidge, Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, Jeff Fulchino, Ryan Mattheus, Rafael Martin, Craig Stammen, Chien-Ming Wang, Cole Kimball, Austin Bibens-Dirkx and Yunesky Maya.