In a small story that at first glance appears to signify a standard rehab process, Washington Nationals catcher Jesus Flores recently began playing in the Venezuelan Winter League. Flores, 26, appeared in just 29 games in 2009 and missed the entire 2010 season recovering from a shoulder injury and the ensuing surgery. At the time of his initial injury, the Nationals' backstops consisted of Flores, Wil Nieves, and journeyman Josh Bard; since then, the team's future behind the plate has changed drastically.
On July 29, the Nationals traded All-Star closer Matt Capps to the Minnesota Twins for Triple-A catcher Wilson Ramos, who entered 2010 as Baseball America's 58th overall prospect. This acquisition came less than two months after the Nationals spent the first overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft on catcher/outfielder Bryce Harper. Moreover, Washington signed future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez after the 2009 season, not to mention the fact that the Nationals' top offensive prospect, Derek Norris, is also a catcher. The sum of all these moves is a crowded catching position that needs to be resolved.
Enter Mike Rizzo. The Nationals' general manager, hired in August of 2009 after serving as an interim replacement for the much-maligned Jim Bowden, is now faced with a decision. The good news for Rizzo is that a number of the players involved have strengths and limitations that will help him negotiate this logjam.
Harper, the now 18 year-old phenom with prodigious power, is likely ultimately to settle in one of the corner outfield positions (though his speed at this point does not preclude him from playing centerfield). He is also years away from major-league ready, so he does not present an immediate problem. Norris, on the other hand, is a highly-touted prospect also known for his offensive ability, but his mobility and agility behind the plate appear to be lacking. Therefore, he projects to play a corner position, most likely first base (assuming Adam Dunn does not re-sign with the team or has moved on by the time Norris reaches the majors).
That leaves Rodriguez, Ramos, and Flores. Rodriguez will obviously not be changing positions. Pudge is one of the greatest catchers of all time and has amassed 13 All-Star appearances and Gold Glove awards over his 20-year career. His experience alone is a valuable commodity that he can share with the Nationals' other catchers; however, he can also still play, batting a respectable .266/.294/.347 while committing only four errors and allowing just two passed balls in 102 games last year.
Ramos, as was previously mentioned, is a high-profile acquisition for the club who not only profiles as a defensive stalwart but also hit .278/.305/.405 in the first 22 major league games of his career in 2010, making him the odds-on favorite to take over the team's catching duties in the long run. Flores is a .260/.313/.406 career hitter including /301/.371/.505 in 29 games in 2009; however, he has obviously shown himself to be injury-prone which, at age 26, raises serious concerns about his durability. His long-term future with the organization has clearly come into question.
Rizzo has a few viable options. He could try to trade Flores, as big league catching talent is at a premium and Flores has shown - albeit in spurts - that he can catch everyday in the majors. The problem with that idea is that Flores would likely command minimal offers because of his extensive injury history. Rizzo could also try to convert Flores to a full-time first baseman; however, Flores' bat may not project to hold sufficient value for such an offensively demanding position, to say nothing of the fact that Norris appears bound for first as well. In theory Rizzo could move Flores to Triple-A Syracuse to test his ability to handle a full-time load, but that creates the inherent problem of blocking Norris from having the same opportunity. Some might wonder whether or not one or more could be converted to play third base, as has been done in the past with B.J. Surhoff and others. Fortunately and unfortunately for the Nationals, third base is their most secure position, with Ryan Zimmerman acting as both the hot corner and the face of the franchise. Finally, Rizzo could carry three catchers (Ramos, Rodriguez, and Flores) with Ramos and Rodriguez receiving the majority of the time behind the plate and Flores getting spot starts at catcher and first as his shoulder allows; however, that comes with the added complication of cluttering the roster and eliminating a more versatile position player, particularly in the National League where double switches are at a premium.
While it would be difficult to juggle the three players' playing time and accompanying egos, the last option appears to be the best solution. Although the position is clearly quite crowded, catchers are invaluable commodities and it is far better to have too many than too few. There is no guarantee that Ramos will pan out as a prospect, and to trade Flores is to go all-in with a young, unproven player. In addition, Rodriguez is likely to retire sometime in the next few seasons, so it seems unwise to trade the lone other proven catcher with such a decision looming. Finally, there are no guarantees on longevity behind the plate (as Flores can attest). If Rizzo were to move Flores, and Ramos or Rodriguez was to get injured, the Nationals would be stuck with just one viable major league catcher. In the end, it seems prudent for Washington to invest in Flores and give him one of the coveted spots on the 40-man roster, assuming he is healthy. This is where GMs earn their keep and forge their reputations. It will be interesting to see how Rizzo and the Nationals handle this situation.