Jesus Flores said he feels the same now as he did two years ago. His shoulder has healed without any lingering complications or pain. He puts on a uniform, plays catch and swings a bat every day, with the rest of his Washington Nationals teammates. “I feel,” he said, “like a major league baseball player.”
There is a difference from two years ago, though. Back then, before an injured right shoulder knocked him off a major league diamond for more than 20 months, he was a fixture, his place on the team a given. Flores doesn’t worry about it — nothing, he says, can faze him after what he’s been through to get back on the field — but he knows that’s changed.
One of the few races that bear watching this spring for the Nationals is the competition between Wilson Ramos and Jesus Flores to back up, and most likely eventually split time with, Ivan Rodriguez. The team is careful not to publicly give an edge to either catcher, but the evidence provided by the first dozen games of spring training suggests Ramos has a clear advantage. Friday, Manager Jim Riggleman gave what could be interpreted as an endorsement of Ramos.
“The thing is, Ramos has just been playing so well,” Riggleman said. “It’s not necessarily a separation between Ramos and Flores. The guys who have swung the bat the best of anybody in camp are really [Brian] Bixler, [Michael] Morse and Ramos. They’ve kind of separated themselves from everybody. But it’s spring training.”
With 18 games remaining, Ramos has received more playing time, and has done more with it, than Flores. Ramos is regarded as the better defensive catcher of the two, a fact accentuated by Flores’s continued re-acclimation behind the plate following the year he spent recovering from shoulder injuries. (Flores, though, said his shoulder is no longer an issue. “It doesn’t bother me at all,” Flores said. “I feel good.”)
But Ramos also has performed better at the plate. Ramos entered Friday night’s game against the Astros 6 for 16 with a double and a walk. Before hitting a two-run homer as the designated hitter Friday night — his first hit on a major league field since 2009 — Flores was hitless in nine at-bats with three walks. He has yet to start a game at catcher.
Again, Riggleman did not go so far as to declare Ramos the leader. But that’s certainly how it looks, and the final decision could have a significant impact on the Nationals’ season. While Rodriguez, 39, will begin the season as the team’s starting catcher, his playing time is likely to diminish as the year goes along so his heir can see more action behind the plate.
Ramos’s success owes in part to a change he made to the lower half of his swing. Last year, Ramos glided his hips forward and moved his weight forward as he swung rather than rotating his hips. Ramos could still hit with authority because of the raw strength in his upper body, but the movement with his hips cost him power.
Hitting coach Rick Eckstein spoke with Ramos at the end of last season and asked him to make a change over the winter.
“He came back, and it was like, ‘Wow. Oh my God,’ ” Eckstein said. “It’s a change, but it’s subtle. It was a different feel. One has that explosive component. The other kind of slides into the swing.”
Along with more power, the difference makes Ramos’s swing quicker and allows him to more easily hit inside pitches. Last year, he sometimes had to cheat on pitches on the inside, which is no longer a necessity.
“When your swing is longer, it makes you more susceptible to everything,” Eckstein said. “So it kind of opens up a different dimension, really.”
Flores’s slow start may underscore why his starting 2011 at Class AAA Syracuse makes the most sense. Before this spring, he had not caught in a major league game since May 2009. Flores played in the Instructional League last fall and also played winter ball in Venezuela. He could use more experience before rejoining the majors. Flores said his offseason work kept him fresh, but he acknowledged the possibility of rust accumulating.
“It makes sense when you’ve been out of the field for a couple years,” Flores said. “But I don’t feel that lost. I played winter ball, and it helped me a lot. I know there’s a big difference between major league baseball and winter ball. But right now for me, I have to really be a different player, more trying to show them the quality of player you are.”
Flores said he remains unworried about his start, satisfied with the state of his shoulder and confident such a small sampling — 13 plate appearances — is not sufficient cause for concern.
“Right now, I’m focused on what I have to do,” he said. “No pressure at all.”