It was hard to not notice the presence of several Nats' prospectsMLB.com's Jonathan Mayo included in his recent survey of the top position players throughout baseball in a series of articles entitled, "Prospect Watch." Most notable was the inclusion of two Nats' backstops on the list entitled, "Prospect Watch: Baseball's Top 10 catchers." Mr. Mayo himself (or someone at MLB in charge of subtitling articles) subtitled the piece, "- Yanks, Nats, Jays dominate list of up-and-coming backstops", after all. Wilson Ramos, acquired along with reliever Joe Testa in a trade with Minnesota last winter that sent closer Matt Capps to the Twins, was a highly-regarded catching prospect ranked the 78th and 51st prospect overall in baseball in '09-'10, respectively, by Baseball America before he hit .316/.341/.494 with 3 doubles and 3 HR's in 20 games in the Nats' system and hit in 14 of 48 at bats (.292) with 4 2B's and his first major league HR after his call-up to the nation's capital in September. With just 22 games and 79 at bats under his belt now, the 23-year-old catcher seems poised to break through at the major league level, which may or may not bode well for Pudge Rodriguez's charge toward 3,000 hits since he'll have to make the most of the starts he splits with Ramos (or Jesus Flores?) (and probably sign a two-to-three-year extension) if he's going to reach that milestone in a curly-W cap.
Ramos followed up on his strong showing with Washington last September by hitting .322/.390/.567 with 17 doubles, 9 HR's and 36 RBI's in 47 games and 180 at bats with the Tigres de Aragua in the Liga Venezuela Beisbol Profesional this winter. MLB.com's Mr. Mayo, who has the Nats' backstop ranked as the 7th best catching prospect in baseball, writes that in spite of his prowess at the plate, Ramos', "real calling card is his glove work. Ramos has a very good receiver who will only get better as he gets used to catching a big league staff." The MLB.com writer predicts that though Ramos will start the 2011 campaign,"...[splitting] time with (and [learning] from) Ivan Rodriguez...the everyday job will be his before long."
Nats' Skipper Jim Riggleman said as much in an interview with MASNSports.com's Byron Kerr recently in an article entitled, "How much will Ivan Rodriguez play in 2011":
"'I think ideally we will try to get Pudge 300 at-bats and get the back up guy 300 at-bats,' Riggleman said. 'It may be a situation where Pudge catches two out of three games earlier on in the season. Then as we get in the middle of the year, maybe Ramos or Flores - whoever is the backup - that person starts catching about half the time and we go from there.'"
Jesus Flores, who put together a .322/.365/.460 VWL slash line with 6 doubles, 2 HR's and 16 RBI's in 25 games and 87 at bats, was equally impressive in first sustained action in over two years, but most preseason prognosticators see the 26-year-old former NY Mets' prospect who hasn't played a major league game since September 12th 2009 having to prove himself for a time in Triple-A before he's back with Washington full-time. Could a strong Spring Training chance things? What will it take to convice the Nationals that Flores is 100%, and that his surgically-repaired right shoulder is prepared for the rigors of every day play?
Behind Pudge, Ramos and Flores, however, in one position in the organization that certainly has depth, is 21-going-on-22-year-old '07 4th Round pick Derek Norris, who's the 10th best backstop prospect in baseball according to MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo's rankings. Ranked the 38th overall prospect (ahead of Wilson Ramos?) by Baseball America before the 2010 season after he'd hit .286 with 30 doubles, 23 HR's, a .413 OBP and .513 SLG (.926 OPS) at Class-A Hagerstown in 2009, Norris struggled to regain his power as he recovered from surgery on the hamate bone in his left-hand which cost him a stint in the AFL catching Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen in '09. Norris, did however, continue to show patience at the plate with a .419 OBP on the year at Class-A+ Potomac, and in Mr. Mayo's estimation, his .278/.403/.667 Arizona Fall League line this year, "should help him move up to Double-A," when the 2011 season starts.
"While he's more of an offensive-minded catcher," MLB.com's Mr. Mayo writes, "he's improved his defense considerably and has thrown out better than 40 percent of basestealers over the past two seasons. With a strong '11, he could make things interesting with Ramos in Washington in '12." Maybe the depth behind the plate is the reason behind the Nationals reportedly considered including Ramos in a deal for a top-of-the-line pitcher they were after this winter. Maybe it's behind MLB.com's Bill Ladson writing in a recent edition of his, "Inbox: How's Opening Day lineup shaping up?", that he, "would not be surprised if Rodriguez was traded before Opening Day in order to make room for Ramos and Jesus Flores."
D.C. GM Mike Rizzo said in an interview this winter that after going to the VWL, Jesus Flores would be at Spring Training to, "...try to win a job as a catcher on the Nationals in 2011," but hinted that the competition was between Flores and Ramos to see who'd work with Pudge, but however it shakes out when pitchers and catchers report in mid-February, the Nationals' backstop situation should be much-improved from the Josh Bard/Wil Nieves platoon days of 2009 and the Pudge/Nieves combination last season, and with Norris on the way up, as Mr. Rizzo himself said back in November, "I think we've got a good quality stable of young, good, impact-type catchers." Imagine if the Nats had kept Bryce Harper behind the plate? In Rizzo We Trust...?