At Catcher, Nats Are Out of Position

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 5, 2007

NASHVILLE, Dec. 4 -- When the Washington Nationals entered the offseason, their primary needs were obvious. They had to address their lack of production in center field, where they desire a significant upgrade from Nook Logan. They had to add power and potential to a lineup that produced the fewest runs of any team in the majors last season. And they had to, as General Manager Jim Bowden likes to say, pursue deals for "pitching, pitching, pitching."

One area that wasn't an obvious need was catcher, where Brian Schneider had been the incumbent since the team moved to Washington in 2005. Moreover, 23-year-old Jesus Flores served as the heir apparent. The club seemed set.

But on Tuesday, Nationals officials spent much of their time trying to figure out who might be their front-line catcher in 2008. Last week's trade of Schneider and outfielder Ryan Church to the New York Mets for outfielder Lastings Milledge left Bowden and his staff grappling with how much of a workload Flores might be able to handle should he be the starter -- and whom they might acquire to help him.

"I think it's very important," Bowden said Tuesday. "We've been working hard on it."

Sources with knowledge of the club's thinking said the Nationals have a two-tiered plan. The first option is to trade for a left-handed-hitting backup who might serve as a platoon partner with Flores but also be able to compete with him for playing time. Sources said the Nationals have interest in Arizona's Miguel Montero, a 24-year-old who hit .224 in 84 games with the Diamondbacks last season.

Montero fits in several ways. He won't be eligible for arbitration until after the 2009 season, and he would allow the Nationals to cautiously develop Flores. The two could push each other through competition for playing time. Flores hit .244 with 25 RBI in 79 games last season as a rookie, when he impressed with his poise and ability in the clutch.

But this is a delicate process.

"It's another story if he has to go out there every single day," Manager Manny Acta said. "We don't want to take the risk of having to option the kid down [to the minors] and hurting him mentally."

Bowden reiterated Tuesday that depending on whom else the Nationals are able to acquire, Flores could end up as the starter in Washington, as a part-time player or even a full-time player at Class AAA. He was acquired as a Rule 5 draft pick last offseason, and because of that was required to spend all of 2007 in the majors or the Nationals would have had to offer him back to his original club, the Mets.

"In an ideal world, do I think a player that was in A ball that's Rule 5'd to the big leagues that's a backup catcher all of a sudden should be thrown in the number one role?" Bowden said. "No, I don't think that's the best way to develop a player. That doesn't mean that might not happen. It all depends on what we're able to do."

There is, though, a second option that would involve signing a free agent. Opinions on the issue vary among club officials. Some favor pursuing former Met Paul Lo Duca, a capable hitter -- he has a career average of .288 and frequently hit second in New York's batting order. There is a sense, though, that Lo Duca's price, likely to be $5 million a year, could be too much to spend for a player the Nationals would essentially consider a stop-gap, not someone who is likely to be part of a Washington team that would contend for a division title.

The Nationals also discussed the idea of pursuing Johnny Estrada, who is with the Mets. Because of the Schneider acquisition, New York is unlikely to tender Estrada a contract, in which case he would become a free agent. But several of the club's baseball operations people don't believe Estrada is a good enough defender to be a proper fit.

Thus, two club officials said the most likely target for the Nationals if they end up pursuing a free agent could be Damian Miller. The 38-year-old hit .237 in 58 games with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2007 and is a .262 career hitter over parts of 11 major league seasons.

Whoever the Nationals bring aboard will have to be a good fit with Flores, who the club believes will be a No. 1 catcher -- eventually. Playing winter ball in his native Venezuela, Flores is hitting .231 through 22 games and, Bowden said, "not driving the ball like he'd like to." But the Nationals said his performance there doesn't concern them.

What does concern them is how to solve a problem that didn't exist last week.

"First choice on any move we make is long term," Bowden said. "That's our first choice. That's a hard thing to do. . . . If we can't do that, then we would do the best we possibly could on Plan B, which is help put the best team we can in '08 on the field and help develop Flores the best way we can.

"Who can we bring in that develops him the best way? We're looking at every option."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company