By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 16, 2008
SEATTLE, June 15 -- When Paul Lo Duca's stint on the disabled list formally ends this week, he'll supply the Washington Nationals' roster with a third catcher -- and a predicament.
Lo Duca, who was hurt May 7, is the team's highest-paid catcher, but has thus far been its least productive at the plate, batting .200 in 50 at-bats.
During Lo Duca's time recovering from a fracture in his right hand, the Nationals uncovered two catchers who have played well enough to retain their roles.
The starter? Twenty-three-year-old Jesús Flores, who leads all regulars in batting and slugging, calling smart ballgames and playing with a composure that belies his age.
On Saturday against Seattle, Flores hit a seventh-inning home run that broke a 2-2 tie and eventually gave Washington a win.
The backup? Wil Nieves. He signed a minor league deal in the offseason -- a move that claimed little attention compared with Washington's signings of Lo Duca and Johnny Estrada -- but has since proven more beneficial. Nieves is batting .284, having hit safely in 12 of his last 15 starts.
At least for the near future, Washington will keep all three catchers on its roster, Manager Manny Acta said. Flores, however, is the clear starter.
"If we would have been predicting [Flores's success], then we would have never signed any of those guys," Acta said. "It's a tribute to him."
Lo Duca will receive at-bats not just as a backup catcher, but also as a first baseman and a left fielder this week. The Nationals no doubt hope that he performs well enough to gain value at the trading deadline, or even regain the form that prompted Washington to sign him to a one-year, $5 million contract last December.
Nieves, meanwhile, just hopes his performance in the last month means he no longer is expendable.
"I think I'm playing pretty good, and that's all I can do," Nieves said. "If they give you the opportunity and you're not hitting, then you make it easy for them to make a decision. But if you think about stuff like that, with Lo Duca coming back what will happen, it will drive you crazy. You get all crazy, and then you won't be able to perform."