Monday, February 22, 2010

The catching question

VIERA, Fla. -- In one oversized locker among all the Nationals' starting position players, the future Hall-of-Famer and greatest catcher of his generation sits and gabs with his new teammates. A few lockers down, the young guy who once was and still is considered the organization's long-term answer behind the plate listens in to the conversation and shares his own thoughts.

Meanwhile, down at the far end of the room, the quiet 21-year-old soaks in the feeling of his first big-league camp, knowing he is considered one of the best catching prospects in the minors. And somewhere in Southern Nevada right now, a 17-year-old phenom who has already appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated wonders if he'll become the Nats' next No. 1 draft pick and, by extension, their new catcher of the future.

For a franchise that in past years has at times struggled to put a legitimate big-league backstop on the field, the Nationals all of a sudden find themselves with a potential logjam behind the plate.

Jesus Flores was supposed to be both the immediate and long-term answer, but he's still recovering from a major shoulder injury last season and likely won't be ready to return by Opening Day. So the Nats signed Ivan Rodriguez this winter to a two-year, $6 million contract, essentially making the 38-year-old perennial All-Star the new starter. But what about top prospect Derek Norris, the organization's offensive player of the year in 2009 and speeding his way up the ladder? And then, what happens if the Nats draft teenage phenom Bryce Harper, another catcher, with the first overall pick in the June draft?

First things first. The Nationals need a catcher for 2010 before they need a catcher for 2011 or 2012. And all signs point to Rodriguez getting the bulk of the workload once the team breaks camp and heads north. The 19-year veteran made it clear when he signed in December that he didn't come to the District to come off the bench.

"I still can play every day, and I will play every day," he said.

Jim Riggleman probably has no choice in the matter anyway, because Flores still hasn't been cleared to throw at full velocity and is being brought back slowly, likely headed for a stint on the DL when the regular season opens.

"By [GM] Mike [Rizzo] going out and getting Pudge, it allows us to take our time and let him really get right," Riggleman said. "He's had a lot of trauma to that arm in the last 10 months, two or three operations, numerous rehab days, just starting over two or three different times. So we really want to let him get right, no questions about it. Let him get 100 percent, and then let's go."

But is Rodriguez, at 38, capable of an everyday workload? While confident enough to put him in the lineup regularly, neither Riggleman nor Rizzo sounds intent to let Pudge surpass 100-to-110 games this season.

"I think last year [when he hit a career-worst .249 in 121 combined games with the Astros and Rangers] was more of a games-played problem for him," Rizzo said. "They overexposed him and played him too much at this point in his career. We're going to manage his at-bats and his games more carefully, and I think we're going to extract more out of him."

Added Riggleman: "He's got a lot left in the tank ... but we'll make sure he's rested."

Until Flores is ready to return, Wil Nieves figures to serve as Rodriguez's backup and make a couple of starts per week. Once Flores is back in the fold, though, the Nats will need to decide how best to split the duties between the two. That is, if they still believe Flores is a long-term solution.

As much as they continue to praise Flores for his abilities both behind and at the plate, privately some Nationals executives wonder whether he'll ever blossom into the All-Star catcher many predicted three years ago when he was stolen away from the Mets in the Rule 5 draft. Flores has dealt with some type of injury in each of his three big-league seasons, and eventually a guy gets labeled as "injury-prone," fair or unfair as that may be.

Flores, now 25, understands this is a make-or-break season. He must not only show he can stay healthy but also that he can perform consistently when he does get a chance to play. Which could be difficult to do with Rodriguez catching at least 50 percent of the time.

Meanwhile, Norris, who just turned 21, lurks in the not-too-distant future. Though he's likely headed to Class A Potomac to open the season, he could be on track to debut in D.C. in September 2011.

And what about Harper? Well, there's no guarantee he'll even be drafted No. 1 this summer. Nationals scouts admit he's in the discussion, but it sounds like the hype may exceed the product in this case. Clearly, he's not Stephen Strasburg. And even if he is drafted, he's years away from reaching the big leagues and perhaps could get moved from catcher to another position somewhere along the way. Come to think of it, the same could be said of Norris, who at 210 pounds and still maturing may be outgrowing the position.

All of these, though, are questions the Nats are happy to have to answer. After trotting out Nieves and Josh Bard the bulk of last season, the thought of a legitimate logjam at catcher is enticing for a franchise that has lacked depth at this position since it arrived in town.

Whether the long-term answer is Rodriguez, Flores, Norris or Harper, at least the Nationals know for the first time they have some options behind the plate.


Bob L. Head said...

Excess catching is a high quality problem. For all the things the club may have flubbed over the past few years, they have succeeded in improving depth behind the plate.

Anonymous said...

Mark, why did Flores change his number form 3 to 26?

Mark Zuckerman said...

natsone_va: Check out this posting from Friday, which includes the explanation of Flores' number switch:

greg said...

Yup. Absolutely no problem having excess inventory at a premium position (SP, C, SS, CF). One too many quality starters at one of those positions? fill a hole somewhere else via trade.

peric said...

Does anyone have a feel after watching the "new guy" left hander? Aaron Thompson ... the guy they go in the Nick the Stick deal? Looks like Brian is down there too.

peric said...

But the "inventory" at catcher seems pretty sparse given Flores longer recuperation and recovery? Now you have Pudge who is not a young catcher, Nieves and Sean Rooney (who is a rung above Norris right now), and then Norris. There is also Jhonothan Solano who seemed to quail when arrived in AAA. And Jamie Burke??? Killian and Nieto are still down in low A?

Isn't this a tad high risk?

sbrent said...

Wow, amazing responsiveness, Mark! Several posters comment after the Olsen piece asking about catchers, and -- voila! -- almost immediately a brilliantly done feature on that appears! One could really get to like this blog journalism! (If only you were actually making a salary, in addition to covering costs...)

Steve M. said...

I saw photos of Ballestar and it is tough to take a guy seriously who doesn't take himself seriously.

I can appreciate Olsen muttering to himself and other guys that have that chip on their shoulder because they want to succeed.

Here's where I think the starting rotation is on July 1st:

Marquis, Lannan, Wang, XXXXXX, Strasburg.

So management will send 3 of the youngsters on to the Opening Day 25 man and then 1 of those 3 stays in the rotation.

I like how Stammen has said he would take a place in the bullpen. I think even the bullpen is over-crowded.

Someone has to emerge as head and shoulders above the rest like Jordan Zimmermann did last year.

Steve M. said...

Mark, well said on the catchers. I think the Nats are fine with Pudge and Nieves holding down the fort so JFlo doesn't have to be rushed back to action.

peric said...

But if one of Pudge (age making it more likely) or Nieves happens to go down? Do you bring up Jhonothan Solano? Sean Rooney? Norris the defensive catcher isn't ready and he hasn't faced AA/AAA pitching as yet?

Who do you call? Pete Orr?

I wouldn't depend on seeing either Wang or Strasburg in the starting rotation on July 1st. I would be happy if Storen did well enough to advance. Patience is required with both of those pitchers.

Andrew said...

Let's hope we see Strasburg and Wang on July 1st if not first week of June!

greg said...

why wouldn't you expect wang by july 1? he's scheduled to start pitching in the minors in april. you have some news that says he won't start then or that he'll need more than 2.5 months of minor league seasoning?

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