Nationals Are Trying To Catch A Break

The Washington Post's Barry Svrluga outlines the major storylines and position battles in spring training for the Washington Nationals. Video: Jonathan Forsythe/washingtonpost.comPhotos: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

VIERA, Fla., March 3 -- In December, Paul Lo Duca signed a one-year, $5 million contract to serve as the Washington Nationals' starting catcher. Yet when Tim Redding threw the first pitch of Monday's exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Lo Duca was inside Space Coast Stadium, enduring various exercises to help strengthen his injured left knee.

In January, Johnny Estrada signed a one-year, $1.25 million contract to serve as the Nationals' backup catcher. Yet after Redding was done with his three-inning outing, Estrada was nowhere to be found, not among the dozens of players lining the steps to the home dugout, instead trying to rehabilitate his right elbow, in which he has tendinitis.

As the Nationals sort through as many as 10 candidates to serve in their starting rotation, they are doing so without their top two catchers. Though no one with the club is freaking out about the situation -- at least not yet -- it is having an impact on the pitching staff, not to mention on Lo Duca and Estrada themselves, as the two sides try to learn each other.

"It's very important," Lo Duca said. "You want to get to know the guys in and out, get to know what kind of pitches they like in certain situations. You want the guys to get that trust in you early, and you've got to know what guys you need to push, what guys need motivation, what guys don't."

For now, Lo Duca can get none of that, and the pitchers can't get used to him, either. He spent Monday, however, making progress, fielding bunts, hitting in the cage, running in the outfield. "No pain, no setbacks," he said afterward, and he still feels like he is on target to play in a game on or about March 15, which would give him two weeks to prepare for the opener.

"That's enough time to get to know the guys," said bench coach Pat Corrales, who also works with the catchers.

This is, however, a process, and the Nationals pitchers -- who are spending their time throwing to Washington's catcher of the future, Jes┬┐s Flores, as well as to veteran backups Chad Moeller, Humberto Cota and Wil Nieves -- could be left behind. If Brian Schneider was still around, perhaps it wouldn't be a concern. But Schneider was traded to the New York Mets in the offseason.

"He's the only full-time major league catcher I've known in my time," right-hander Jason Bergmann said. "That's pretty much the case for everyone else here."

There is more to just getting behind the plate and seeing the velocity and movement of pitches. Lo Duca is entering his eighth year as a starter; Estrada started the past four years. Each knows how to evaluate a pitcher's repertoire fairly quickly. But there is the matter of getting into the season, into a certain spot late in a game when the team needs one key pitch. Estrada, who is with his fourth team in four years, said he found himself still "trying to get on the same page" with his pitching staff months into the season, even when he has been healthy.

"To really know somebody, you've got to have a relationship with them," said Nationals director of player development Bob Boone, who appeared in 2,225 games as a catcher, second-most all-time. "That means having a beer, talking about what you like to do. The key is that the two guys get in sync, so when you put that exotic sign down, the pitcher goes, 'God, I was thinking that, too.' "

The one player to whom most of the Nationals pitchers have thrown is Flores, the 23-year-old who spent all of last season in the majors after being selected in the Rule 5 draft. When the club signed Lo Duca and Estrada, it planned to send Flores to Class AA Harrisburg, where he could play every day and face some of the best prospects in the game. The injuries, should they persist, might change that plan.

"Say neither one of those guys were able to play," Corrales said of Lo Duca and Estrada. "For me, myself -- and I haven't talked to [Manager Manny Acta] about this -- I'd play Flores. But that's not my decision."

Acta, though, allowed that it's a possibility. But it's clear Flores will only make the major league team if he will catch five or six times a week; the club does not want to hinder his development further by making him a backup.

"It all depends on how Flo continues to do," Acta said. "If Flo continues to show everybody what he has shown us since last year, and those guys are not ready, we might go in a different direction. The plan is we just don't want to bring him up here to sit and play him once a week."

So for now, the Nationals' pitchers float through spring, wondering who will end up calling their games. Though Lo Duca is progressing, there is no timetable to get Estrada throwing and swinging again. "He's shut down," Acta said.

That leaves the other veterans -- all signed as free agents to non-guaranteed deals -- to split much of the playing time. Monday, Moeller, who has spent part of the last eight seasons in the majors, threw one ball into the outfield on a stolen base attempt. Nieves, who served as Jorge Posada's backup with the New York Yankees for much of last year, has a reputation as a solid defender and added a single Monday.

All the while, the catchers on whom the Nationals spent $6.25 million in the offseason could only peek in on the action occasionally, when they weren't rehabilitating various ailments, wondering when they would get to know the pitchers they will be entrusted to catch.

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