Catching corps a position of depth for Nationals

The pecking order seems to already be established. Ivan Rodriguez enters 2011 as the Nationals’ starting catcher, with promising Wilson Ramos and perennially recovering Jesus Flores in reserve.

That makes the guys who don the so-called tools of ignorance a potential position of strength for the Nats. But how long will that depth alignment remain intact? And, since it’s doubtful manager Jim Riggleman will break spring camp in Viera, Fla., carrying three catchers on the 25-man roster, who gets the nod as Rodriguez’s backup?

The Ramos-Flores battle looms as one of the most interesting heading into spring training. Right now, the 23-year-old Ramos, acquired from Minnesota in the trade that sent Matt Capps to the Twins on July 29, may have the edge -- if only because he made a positive, lasting impression at the end of 2010. Hitting .269 with a homer and four RBIs in 15 games was nice, but Riggleman and Nationals pitchers raved about the youngster’s ability to work with a pitching staff he was still learning.

Flores, of course, hasn’t appeared behind the plate in a major league game since May 9, 2009 (though he did make three pinch-hitting appearances in September of that season). Since then, a series of frustrating shoulder injuries has sidelined the 26-year-old who was once viewed as the team’s catcher of the future.

But Flores made it through fall instructional league with no problems and has played for the Navegantes de Magallanes in the Venezuelan Winter League this offseason. Though he was briefly sidelined by a hamstring strain, Flores is batting .360 (18-for-50) with a homer and eight RBIs in 14 games. While those statistics are admittedly a small sampling, it’s a hopeful indicator that Flores is ready to resume his major league career.

That may be easier said than done. Because neither Flores nor Ramos plays another position, it’s doubtful both would come north as Rodriguez’s backups. One will likely be shipped to Triple-A Syracuse to serve as an insurance policy. The Nationals will need to determine whether they think sitting on the bench will retard Ramos’ development and whether Flores is capable of being counted upon for more.

Rodriguez, while still serviceable behind the plate, tailed off after a strong start, a victim of overuse. He also spent time on the disabled list last year with a balky back, a problem that has troubled him during his storied 20-season career. The two-year, $6 million deal he signed last December expires after this season, but Rodriguez remains a positive influence among the catching corps, and the Nationals want him to spend as much time as possible during spring training with Ramos, Flores and 21-year-old Derek Norris, who will probably play a majority of 2011 at Double-A.

Norris’ emergence after an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League, coupled with Flores’ recovery, could create more positional depth than the Nationals need. And if that happens, don’t be surprised if Flores is packaged in a trade to fill another need.