The Washington Nationals announced this afternoon that they had re-assigned 33-year-old catcher Carlos Maldonado, sending the Venezuelan-born backstop to Triple-A Syracuse where he'll begin his third season in the Nats' organization working alongside 26-year-old prospect Jhonatan Solano. Maldonado, a former Mariners, Astros, White Sox, Pirates and Red Sox' prospect, who signed his first deal with Washington in March of 2010, was 7 for 16 this Spring with a double, a home run, five walks and six K's in 17 games, but there was no doubt, provided they remained healthy, that it would be Wilson Ramos and Jesus Flores sharing the catching duties at the major league level for the Nationals when the season begins this week...
Nats' skipper Davey Johnson told reporters this afternoon, as quoted by the Washington Times' Amanda Comak in an article entitled, "Davey Johnson gets his motor running, Gio Gonzalez gets his first hit and a host of other notes from the Nationals 2-1 victory over St. Louis", that he was going to miss having Maldonado around, "'I hate to lose him,' Johnson said. 'He's been like my favorite chair.'" The manager also praised Wilson Ramos' work this afternoon, especially the pitch-calling by the 24-year-old catcher in an at bat in the ninth with Henry Rodriguez on the mound against Cardinals' infielder Tyler Greene, as the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore noted in a post-game article entitled, "Nationals-Cardinals: A tight finish and a happy manager":
"Up came Tyler Greene. Rodriguez threw the hardest fastball in the majors last season, but catcher Wilson Ramos knew Greene was a fastball hitter. He started Greene with two breaking balls outside, which put Rodriguez ahead in the count and made Greene think about the curve. Then Rodriguez unleashed an inside fastball, strike three, inning over.
"'Just the pitch selection going after it, the way Ramos worked him, all that, it doesn’t get any better than that,' Johnson said. 'If that doesn’t get your motor running, nothing will.'"
So far this Spring, Ramos is 9 for 44 (.205/.255/.295) with four doubles, three walks and four K's in 16 games. Last year, in his first Spring Training with the Nationals following a July '10 trade with the Twins, a then-23-year-old Ramos was 17 for 48 (.354/.392/.479) with three doubles, a home run, three walks and eight K's in 20 games following a Venezuelan Winter League stint with the Tigres de Aragua in which he'd put up a .322/.390/.567 line with seventeen doubles and nine home runs in 47 games and 180 at bats.
After Ramos' .267/.334/.445, 22 double, 15 HR, +3.3 fWAR rookie season in D.C., the now-24-year-old catcher underwent a harrowing kidnapping incident in his home country, but remained there and played for the Tigres de Aragua again this winter, putting up a .218/.277/.276 line with two doubles and a home run in 25 games and 87 at bats. He'll start his second full-season in D.C. as the unquestioned no.1 catcher, but the Nationals also have Jesus Flores back and finally 100% after several years spent rehabbing injuries to his shoulder, labrum and elbow.
Flores tore up the Liga Venezuela Beisbol Profesional this winter, posting a .330/.368/.514 slash for the Navegantes del Magallanes and connecting for 16 doubles and eight home runs in 56 games and 218 at bats. In 18 games this Spring, Flores has continued to hit, putting up a .298/.353/.489 line with three doubles and two home runs in 47 at bats. In 2011, the now-27-year-old catcher split time between Triple-A Syracuse where he had a .234/.252/.378 line with 15 doubles and five home runs in 56 games and 218 at bats and D.C., where Flores had a .209/.253/.314 line with six doubles and one home run in 31 games and 91 plate appearances.
Ramos firmly established himself as the no.1 catcher in the nation's capital last season, and Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez played the bulk of the time behind the young backstop, though he missed significant time which opened the door for Flores' return. The Nationals parted ways with the future Hall of Fame backstop after the season though, and they were comfortable enough with Ramos and Flores at the major league level, Solano and Maldonado at Triple-A and catchers like Sandy Leon, David Freitas and Adrian Nieto in the system that they traded the top catching prospect in the system, Derek Norris, in the deal that brought Gio Gonzalez from Oakland this winter.
With a 24-year-old starter, in Wilson Ramos, and a hard-hitting 27-year-old back-up, in Jesus Flores, who appears to be getting close to being the hitter he was before he injured his shoulder in 2009, the Nats are starting the season with what's likely the strongest tandem they've had behind the plate catching the most impressive collection of pitchers they've assembled since baseball returned to the nation's capital.