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Wilson Ramos’ potential will give Pudge an unwelcome nudge

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It wouldn’t surprise me if Washington Nationals rookie catcher Wilson Ramos replaced Ivan Rodriguez in the starting lineup Saturday against the Atlanta Braves.

Rodriguez doesn’t want a day off. In his 21st season, the 14-time all-star actually still prefers a heavy workload. And he’s definitely not the type to request a break after only one game. That’s why this could be difficult.

Regardless of Rodriguez’s feelings, the Nationals are transitioning to Ramos as their everyday catcher. They’re confident Ramos will take a major step this season, so there’s no sense in waiting to start an important process for the franchise’s future. The Nationals are making the right move in giving Ramos an early opportunity to prove he’s ready, and Rodriguez will simply have to deal with it as best he can.

Ramos’s performance will determine how fast things happen, though it seems no timetable would be acceptable to Rodriguez.

“There’s a lot of baseball left in me,” he said after Thursday’s 2-0 loss to Atlanta at Nationals Park.

The situation is sensitive for the Nationals because of Rodriguez’s strong work ethic and stature in the game. But Rodriguez, who needs 183 hits for 3,000 (an important milestone to him), is no longer productive offensively. He hasn’t been for some time.

Rodriguez isn’t the first Hall of Fame-caliber player to suffer a bruised ego in the twilight of his career. Undoubtedly, he won’t be the last.

Only a failure to perform by Ramos could derail the Nationals’ plan. Because that’s not expected, Rodriguez is facing a new, uncomfortable reality.

“I work very hard,” he said. “I take care of myself very good. Physically and mentally, I feel great.

“The most important thing is the passion is still there. And the love for the game is still there. And when you have those things still with you, you should keep playing.”

Manager Jim Riggleman understands. He admires Rodriguez’s passion.

Riggleman respects Rodriguez, 39, for being a “gamer.” He believes the 13-time Gold Glove Award winner could play several more seasons as a backup because “he’s still a great athlete behind the plate. He blocks balls as good as anybody. He throws people out. He’s got a lot left.”

The days of Rodriguez playing at least 100 games at catcher, however, are likely over with the Nationals. If all goes as expected, Ramos, 23, and Rodriguez will split time almost evenly this season.

Or Ramos could quickly move ahead of Rodriguez if his offensive production steadily approaches his immense potential. That’s what the Nationals are hoping for, because their Adam Dunn-less batting order would benefit if Ramos delivers.

General Manager Mike Rizzo has placed a priority on defense, a sound baseball move by a proven baseball man.

Of course, the Nationals eventually must score to win games. Even batting eighth, Rodriguez is a liability offensively. He has a .296 on-base percentage since 2007, which ties him for the fourth-lowest total in the majors over that time span. His .683 OPS is the eighth-lowest in baseball.

Rodriguez went hitless in three at-bats Thursday, failing to hit a ball out of the infield. With the Nationals trailing, 2-0, in the seventh inning and Danny Espinosa on second after a one-out double, Rodriguez grounded to first.

Riggleman, at least in part, probably did not use top pinch-hitter Matt Stairs in the seventh because he envisioned hitting for Rodriguez during a potential ninth-inning rally. Riggleman has little maneuverability because of the roster’s shortcomings, and Rodriguez’s spot in the order is among the team’s biggest weaknesses.

During 20 games in spring training, Ramos batted .354. He had a .392 on-base percentage. His OPS was .871.

The Nationals expected a lot from Ramos and he hasn’t disappointed. They traded closer Matt Capps to Minnesota in July for Ramos because it’s rare when catching prospects have high ceilings defensively and offensively. All indications are that Ramos has the total package.

With the Twins, he was stuck behind all-star Joe Mauer. There’s no shame in having your path blocked by the game’s best catcher. Rodriguez previously held the title for about 16 years.

Now, it’s time to see where Ramos fits in on the list, and “we don’t want to stunt his progress because he’s got a chance to be real good,” Riggleman said. “It’s gonna be tough with Pudge because he loves to play.”

The task of managing the transition, obviously, falls to the manager. Rizzo also has spoken with Rodriguez about the organization’s commitment to developing Ramos, who Rodriguez acknowledges is “great. He’s a tremendous catcher. He’s got a tremendous future in this game.”

Riggleman began laying the groundwork last season, pinch-hitting for Rodriguez once with the bases loaded. Riggleman also dropped him to eighth in the order because that would be his usual spot this season. Still, the Rodriguez-Ramos change isn’t easy.

But it is what it is, Riggleman said.

“I remember years ago, [Baltimore Hall of Fame manager] Earl Weaver said the toughest thing he ever had to do in baseball was pinch-hit for [Hall of Fame third baseman] Brooks Robinson,” Riggleman said. “Earl loved Brooks Robinson and . . . it’s tough for me. It’s gonna be tough for Pudge. But it’s a transition that will be made.”

Rodriguez wants to continue playing for the Nationals, and they’d like that as well. Ideally, he would “mentor Ramos in the future here as the second guy,” Riggleman said.

The Nationals aren’t interested in casting aside Rodriguez.

They believe there’s a place for a sage, hard-working veteran in an organization that plans to promote many talented, inexperienced players during the next few seasons. They appreciate what Rodriguez has accomplished and value his leadership by example. They still need what he could offer — just not as much of it as he would prefer to provide.

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