Since the Nationals walled off a spot for Jesus Flores on their 2007 roster, there has been little question they saw in him a 10-year answer at the catching position.
When free agent pickup Paul Lo Duca started slow, then got hurt in 2008, they gave Flores the starting spot, and Lo Duca became a $5 million utility player before he was cut in August.
After a broken ankle ended Flores' 2008 season a month early, they installed him as the starter in 2009 with little competition, and watched as he hit .301 in the first month of the season, fortifying the notion that he was one of the Nationals' success stories.
Whether the Nationals question that notion now, or just temporarily need a hedge against it, is unclear. But what Flores is, and can still be, is a question the Nationals must answer this season.
Flores is returning from operations on his shoulder and elbow this spring, and any notion the Nationals aren't worried about his health was dispelled in December, when they gave 38-year-old catcher Ivan Rodriguez a two-year, $6 million deal. General manager Mike Rizzo has said he expects Rodriguez to play as many as 90 games, effectively suggesting a platoon where Rodriguez gets a slight majority of the work.
And some in the organization have suggested Derek Norris, who was the organization's player of the year in 2009 and will be in major league camp despite having never played above Class A, could be ready to play in the majors full-time as early as 2011.
All this activity, both in front of and behind Flores, leaves him to answer the question of how prominently he'll factor in the Nationals' future. His absence in the lineup created a void the Nationals never really filled until they traded for Nyjer Morgan, and Flores has shown a knack for producing in clutch situations. But a conversation about Flores never goes too far before the injuries come up. He's yet to play more than 90 games in a major league season, and might not start that many this year if Rodriguez gets as much work as Rizzo has suggested.
Then there's this: The Nationals have the first pick in the 2010 draft, and the name that comes up, more often than not, is that of Bryce Harper, the 17-year-old prodigy who's currently attending a junior college in Las Vegas and working toward his GED so he can be eligible for the 2010 draft. Scouts have said Harper has the ability to play different positions, but his first position is catcher, and his rocket arm (his fastball has been clocked at 96 mph) would seem a tantalizing complement to his 500-foot home runs. If Harper is the pick -- and there's no guarantee he will be -- it could still be several years before he's ready for the majors. But he would be an expensive investment, and one that would add to the surplus of young catchers the Nationals will soon have fighting for playing time.
That group, for now, includes Flores, who agreed to a $750,000 deal with the team in his first year of arbitration. But this season will go a long way toward determining how much longer the Nationals fearlessly project Flores to be their fixture at catcher.
Now it's your turn. Question time:
1. How confident are you that Jesus Flores can be the Nationals' catcher for the next five years? Does his .301 average in 29 games last year encourage you more than his history of injuries worries you?
2. What kind of role would you like to see for Ivan Rodriguez this year -- and for that matter, next year?
3. What's your take on the future of Derek Norris and/or Bryce Harper? Do you want the surplus, or would the No. 1 pick be better spent elsewhere?