Ivan Rodriguez will be the Nationals starting catcher
Nationals Manager Jim Riggleman declared Ivan Rodriguez the team's starting catcher to begin the season, creating a competition for the backup position between the Nationals' two young catchers, Jesus Flores and Wilson Ramos.
"My thought is that Pudge is our catcher," Riggleman said. "We're going to go out there, and Pudge is going to continue to lead our ball club as a leader behind the plate, a good hitter, just a good baseball player. He's got a lot of baseball left. So he's our catcher."
While Rodriguez will get the nod, Riggleman said the backup will be given frequent playing time, and it will increase as the year goes along. Giving the backup increased work should also help Rodriguez, who hit .231/.257/.297 (average/on-base/slugging) after the all-star break last season, stay fresh.
"Whoever wins that second spot is going to get incorporated into the lineup more and more as we go along," Riggleman said. "Whether its Ramos or Flores, they're very talented guys that we're not going let them die on the vine. They got to get playing time. Whichever guy is there, they're going to get playing time and stay sharp, and as the year goes on, probably get a little more playing time."
Flores, 26, is finally healthy after battling a shoulder injury for nearly two years. He had become the Nationals' primary catcher and a promising part of their future in 2009 before a torn labrum derailed him.
Ramos, 24, was acquired in the trade last July that sent closer Matt Capps to the Minnesota Twins. At the end of last season, Ramos shared playing time with Rodriguez equally. Ramos, a defensive star in the making, hit .278/.305/.405 in 22 total major league games last year, 15 of which came with the Nationals.
The loser of the competition will likely be sent to Class AAA. The Nationals will almost certainly not carry all three catchers. Riggleman said he'll re-evaluate if injuries occur to bench players, but there is a "99 percent" chance that the Nationals will carry Rodriguez and one more catcher.
One of the catchers, particularly Flores, could become a trade chip if he does not make the team on opening day. The Nationals also have top prospect Derek Norris, who is likely to start the year in Class AA, in their system at catcher. Riggleman, though, expressed some doubt the Nationals would be motivated to trade their spare catcher.
"The talent that we have and the number [of catchers] that we have is a good number," Riggleman said. "It's not an extraordinary number."
Though Rodriguez will carry the designation of starting catcher for now, he will not necessarily maintain a lock on the job all season, as Riggleman hinted at. Rodriguez's stature in the game and the Nationals' clubhouse leaves the Nationals little choice but to give him the title of starting catcher on opening day. As the year moves along, though, it will be easier for them to give more time to Flores or Ramos if they prove deserving.
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