WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 18: Jesus Flores #26 of the Washington Nationals is congratulated by manager Davey Johnson after hitting a solo home run during the fifth inning at Nationals Park on August 18, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
After two years on the sidelines recovering from a stress fracture and later a tear of the labrum in his right shoulder, Nats' backstop Jesus Flores finally got back to the major leagues this season. The 26-year-old catcher, once considered the future behind the plate in the nation's capital, made two appearances in April but didn't see regular playing time until Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez went down with an oblique strain in July. By that time, 23-year-old Wilson Ramos had firmly established himself as the no.1 catcher in Washington, relegating Rodriguez to a backup role and raising the question of what the future held for Flores if he was able to remain healthy and once again show he could play at the major league level.
Asked about his recovery from shoulder issues in an April interview, Flores said that the rehab was over and it was now about, "... getting timing [back], with the rhythm of the game," but making it back to the majors, he said, "... is something to feel proud of myself [for] after working really hard the last couple of years, and like I said I'm just going to be patient and wait for my right time." Just getting back to the majors wasn't enough though, as Flores explained it, he was confident he could get back to where he was when the first of several injuries to his shoulder sidelined him in 2009. "I'm still young, with a lot of talent too," Flores said confidently. "I feel I can be an All-Star and I'm going to keep working for it.
Two years away from the game is a long time, however, as Flores acknowledged, and the numbers he put up in 56 games and 218 plate appearances at Triple A (.234/.252/.378 slash, 15 doubles, 5 HR's) and in 30 games in Washington (.209/253/.314, 6 doubles, 1 HR) weren't what fans in the nation's capital remembered from the '06 Rule 5 pick plucked from the Mets' organization on the advice of then-adviser to the GM Davey Johnson. At the end of the season, Johnson, who had become Flores' manager, said the season had been, "... a good stepping-stone for him to come back to be the kind of catcher that everybody knows he is and can be."
Flores' season ended on September 22nd, with Pudge Rodriguez returning at the end of the month and catching two games that would likely have gone to Flores otherwise. Flores expressed his frustration on Twitter (@JesusFloresN26), writing simply on September 27th, "No playing time #Frustration." (ed. note - "I still don't know what that square means? But you get the point.") It wasn't the sort of tweet a player regrets and quickly deletes, but more a genuine expression of frustration by a player who wanted more time to continue to work on improving his game.
As Flores explained in an interview with Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore in a late September Nationals Journal post entitled, "Jesus Flores’s healthy return and uncertain future", the move to a backup role was a difficult one for a catcher who was used to playing every day. "'It was an adjustment,' Flores said. 'I had to adapt to the situation. I’m still 27. I’m in good shape. I still have a lot of talent to be a No. 1 catcher.'" As the WaPost writer read Flores' demeanor, "Flores sounded like a player who may want to continue his career elsewhere. He was not bitter or angry, just not content."
The 26-going-on-27-year-old catcher's currently playing with the Navegantes del Magallanes in the Liga Venezuela Beisbol Profesional where he's 8 for 14 with 3 doubles and 2 HR's in 3 games. It is of course, hard to judge how Winter League stats translate, but if Flores is healthy and thinks he can play every day elsewhere it might pose a problem for the Washington Nationals. Flores is arbitration-eligible. Pudge Rodriguez's contract with the Nationals expired after this season, and the veteran catcher (whose work with Stephen Strasburg and Chien-Ming Wang late in the season once again reminded one how valuable he can be defensively at least) seems to think he still has a few years left in him.
MLB.com's Bill Ladson listed Flores as a possible trade candidate in his year-end look at the Nationals' roster since as he put it, "His days as an everyday player with the Nationals are over because of Ramos," and the Nats beat writer for MLB also predicted that Pudge Rodriguez would continue his quest for 3,000 hits in a different uniform than he's worn for the last few seasons. Davey Johnson told reporters in a late-season discussion that the Nationals have one of the "solid catching corps in all of baseball from top-to-bottom in our organization," but do they have the depth to move on without Flores and Rodriguez?
The top backstop prospect in the organization, Derek Norris, put up a .210/.367/.446 slash with 17 doubles and 20 HR's in 104 games and 423 plate appearances at Double-A Harrisburg this season and he's out representing the Nationals in the Arizona Fall League, often referred to as a "finishing school for the game's top prospects" for the second-straight season, but he's 22-going-on-23, he's never played above Double-A ball, and according to most reports, still has to improve defensively. In an interview last winter on Sirius/XM's MLB Network Radio, the Nats' Director of Player development Doug Harris talked about the great catching Washington had with Ramos, Rodriguez, Flores and Norris and made sure 21-year-old catcher Sandy Leon's name was included in a discussion about the organization's catching depth.
Leon, Harris said, "[is] a little bit of an under-the-radar catcher, a switch-hitting catcher that will likely play in Potomac this year that is a tremendous defender, game caller, switch bat, and you know he's going to sneak his way into that group." Leon, who was recognized by Baseball America as the Best Defensive Catcher of 2011, was also a post season Carolina League All-Star selection. But neither Leon or Norris seem ready for the majors yet, or particularly suited to a backup role.
26-year-old Jhonatan Solano spent the year at Triple-A, posting a .275/.325/.388 slash in 78 games and 279 plate appearances, sharing the catching duties with Flores and 32-year-old Carlos Malonado (.231/.361/.342). Can the Nationals plug one of the two in as Ramos' backstop or find a suitable backstop in this year's free agent class or do they need to bring Jesus Flores or Pudge Rodriguez back for at least one more year in the nation's capital?