Heading into spring training, the Washington Nationals appeared to have four players who were capable of being quality every-day major league catchers.
And three games into the Grapefruit League schedule, nothing has changed.
Future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez has gone 3-4 with an RBI; Wilson Ramos, obtained from the Twins last summer for Matt Capps, is 4-6, also with a run batted in; and minor league stud, Derek Norris, is 2-3 and hit his first home run yesterday against the Cardinals.
Oh, and Jesus Flores, the team’s former future catcher, is 0-5, which doesn’t really matter because he has yet to rip, pull, break or otherwise do anything to find himself back on the disabled list, his home for the better part of the last three seasons.
Depth and talent. My, how things have changed.
Two years ago, there was a great void at catcher for the Washington Nationals. It was like a black hole, a huge expanse of nothingness with nary a star in sight.
Brian Schneider seemed to be the answer when the team moved from Montreal but did little in his three seasons with Washington.
In 2009, Josh Bard and Wil Nieves got most of the at-bats, but combined to hit just .240/.305/.330.
But a smart free agent signing and a blossoming young star gave the Nationals hope. Add to that one of those “crafty veteran for promising young player” trades and suddenly the catching cupboard was no longer bare.
Heading into 2011, General Manager Mike Rizzo fully expected “Pudge” Rodriguez to split time with Ramos behind the plate.
Two roster spots, two players. It seemed easy.
But then something amazing happened.
Jesus Flores returned from the baseball dead late last season and seems ready to again compete.
To be sure, Rodriguez will come North with the team. After an off year in 2009, Rodriguez bounced back enough last season to give the Nationals a steady presence behind the plate. In 400 at-bats, he hit .266/.294/.347 and made just four errors in 102 games.
Ramos, baseball’s No. 58 prospect last year, batted .278 with the Twins and Nationals and has an above-average glove. When the trade was made, it was with the expectation that by the upcoming All Star break, he would be the team’s starting catcher; ease in the prospect, ease out the Hall-of-Famer.
But does anyone remember how good Flores really was?
I had never heard of Flores before the 2006 Rule V draft, but front office assistant Davey Johnson certainly had. He had seen him play for the Mets’ Class-A Florida State League entry and bugged then GM Jim Bowden to take him in the draft if available.
As a 21 year old, Flores had batted .266-21-70 for Port St. Lucie with 32 doubles and a .335 on-base percentage. He led the league in home runs, was eighth in doubles, 14th in RBI and 10th in OPS.
He made just four errors all season and threw out almost half of those attempting to steal.
So why would such a good player be left unprotected?
Because no general manager in his right mind would take such a young and raw player—especially a catcher—and force him to sit on the major league bench for an entire year.
Washington Senators fans—old ones like me—remember Harmon Killebrew who had to remain on the major league roster as an 18 year old because of similar rules, getting just 104 at-bats over two seasons before being sent to the minors for seasoning.
No one is stupid enough to let that happen again. That’s why Flores was left unprotected.
Of course, stupid and Jim Bowden just seem to go together.
Said Baseball America the next day:
“The best prospects lost in the major league phase include catcher Jesus Flores from the Mets to the Nationals, where new manager Manny Acta—who came over from the Mets—should be familiar with Flores. Still, it's hard to imagine a catcher jumping from high Class A to stick in the major leagues. Then again, these are the Nationals."
And from Metscentric.com:
"The Mets also lost possibly their best catching prospect in Jesus Flores who was taken by Washington in the Rule 5 Draft. Flores is a few years away and the Mets are probably expecting Francisco Pena to eventually overtake him as a prospect. They may even get Flores back, but I still think it was a mistake to leave him exposed when they had roster space."
Mlb.com’s Jonathan Mayo said that he was “very happy” with the pick and believed that the Nationals had found their “catcher of the future.” He said that Bowden was doing a solid job of finding “top-flight talent” in less than conventional ways.
Surprisingly, the Nationals didn’t hide him all that much in his first season in the major leagues. The 22 year old batted .244/.310/.361 with four homers and 25 RBI. Expand those numbers over a full season and he would have batted .244-12-75.
But he just hasn’t been healthy since.
He started having headaches, suffered a severe ankle sprain, strained his calf and that was just in 2008.
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The following year, he injured his shoulder and missed more than 100 games. Then even before the 2010 season started, he tore his labrum and was out for the year.
Flores spent much of last summer slogging through physical therapy, healthy enough to be on the diamond but still unable to throw a ball to second base. When the Ramos trade was announced, he realized that he was now an afterthought to the Nationals.
I mean, Ramos was given Flores’ jersey number for goodness sake.
And then—just like that—Flores got healthy. He played in 25 games in the just completed Dominican Winter League, hitting .322/.365/.460 with two homers and 16 RBI.
If he’s healthy, the Nationals have two young starting catchers.
So, now what?
His scouting report is glowing: “He boasts a great arm and can singlehandedly curb the running game and a solid hitting stroke and power potential. He is a quality receiver. He is a talented catcher with all-around upside when healthy.”
Compare that to Ramos: “Has an ideal catcher’s build. Can hit for average and also displays some home run power. His defense is first rate.”
The Nationals, then, may have two young catchers capable of being quality starters, both with a great glove and an above average bat.
Oh, and they have that future Hall-of-Famer as well.
If healthy, Flores is my preference. He has a similar bat but with more power than Ramos and at least equal defense.
My guess is that—playing every day—Flores can hit .275-20-75 batting sixth while Ramos is more of a .270-15-55 hitter more suited for batting seventh.
Add up all of Jesus Flores’ major league at-bats and it equals one full major league season: .260-16-99, 30 doubles, three triples and a .313 on-base percent.
It makes no sense to keep both players, but because of his injury history, Flores has little trade value. Ramos, on the other hand, is worth one near All-Star closer. Matt Capps proved that.
Should the Nationals play it safe and keep Ramos, a very good catching prospect or trade him and keep Flores, who has already shown that he is a quality major league catcher when healthy?
Flores still has options and will likely have to prove his health at Syracuse, at least for a while.
But of course, this is all short-term conjecture.
The next great "catcher of the future" is Derek Norris, of course.