The Nationals’ catching battle

When the Nationals’ pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Viera, Fla., two weeks from yesterday, there figure to be only a few legitimate battles for spots on their 25-man roster. But the spots that are up for grabs will likely be contested throughout the spring. And of those few spots, there might not be one more intriguing than the second catcher’s spot.

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Here’s how it looks: The Nationals have said they aren’t likely to keep three catchers on their roster, and it’s a virtual lock that Ivan Rodriguez will be one of them.

(Why, you ask? He’s making $3 million this year, he’s a future Hall of Famer with a remote chance to reach 3,000 hits this year and for his offensive regression, he’s still a valued mentor for the team’s young pitchers. Some of you have asked if there’s a chance he doesn’t make the team. If there is, it’s infinitesimally small.)

So that leaves one spot for the Nationals’ catcher of the future (Wilson Ramos) and their former catcher of the future (Jesus Flores), who is healthy for the first time in almost two years and is hoping to reboot what looked like a promising career two years ago.

(It’s almost like a bad soap opera plot, where a widow is about to get remarried, only to find out the day before her wedding that her long-gone husband is in fact still alive. But I digress.)

The Nationals, all of a sudden, have a surplus at a position where they’ve typically struggled to find two healthy players. Since they dispatched Brian Schneider after the 2007 season, they’ve routinely dealt with injuries to catchers, from Paul Lo Duca to Johnny Estrada to Flores to Josh Bard. It’s why Wil Nieves, a journeyman backup, played 199 games from 2008-10.

But now they have plenty to work with behind the plate, with Rodriguez there to start the year and two prospects fighting for a spot behind him.

To make things even more interesting, both of them had impressive winters; Flores hit .325 in 25 games in the Venezuelan Winter League, and Ramos was even better, hitting .322 with nine homers and 36 RBI, also in the VWL.

That power is one reason Ramos has an early edge on Flores for the spot; he could turn into a 15-18 homer guy in the majors, while Flores doesn’t have quite that much pop. He also projects as a better receiver, and he’s almost three years younger. But Flores has a strong arm, had improved his receiving skills significantly before his shoulder injuries started early in the 2009 season, and has shown a knack for delivering timely hits in big situations.

The guess here is that Ramos starts the year in the majors, while Flores goes to the minors to strengthen his shoulder some more. There are two other factors here that could complicate things, though: First, both players still have options left, so neither one can fall back on roster inflexibility to guarantee a spot. And second, the Nationals are well aware either player could make a nice trade chip. They’ll definitely be trying to show Flores is healthy in spring training, in the event they could flip him for a prospect, or use him as their second catcher if Ramos draws interest. It’s more likely they’d move Flores than Ramos, but you never know.

Finally, the last thing to consider is the future of the position, which might not revolve around either of these players. Derek Norris should start the year at Double-A Harrisburg, and could surge toward the majors as soon as he polishes his receiving skills. The Nationals say, at least at the moment, they’re not planning on moving Norris to first base, and at six feet, he doesn’t project as an ideal first baseman. But he’s got good power and the most refined plate approach in the team’s system, so catching and game-calling are the only things holding him back. He’ll be around to crowd this picture even further in another year or so.

For now, though, the Nationals have plenty to sort out behind the plate. And in a spring where there aren’t likely to be many feverish battles, the second catcher’s spot is probably the best bet for one.