Analysis of Pudge signing

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Good morning, Nats fans. Since Ben obviously had a late night in Indianapolis upon learning the stunning news that your favorite 103-loss club has signed future Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez to a two-year contract, I figured I’d jump in back here from D.C. and offer some reaction to this surprising development.

First off, though, stop for a moment and consider this statement: Pudge Rodriguez is a National. Pretty amazing (and unforeseen). But what does it mean?

Well, we knew the Nats wanted to acquire a veteran catcher, someone who could backup Jesus Flores over the long haul but also start on a daily basis should Flores’ surgically repaired right shoulder and elbow not hold up. I, for one, figured they’d wind up with a lesser-known, cheaper, still-reliable guy like Rod Barajas or Brad Ausmus. But Pudge? Perhaps the greatest catcher in baseball history (or certainly in the discussion with Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk and Yogi Berra)? No way.

The move certainly makes some sense, though. For one thing, Flores’ future is very much clouded. The guy had a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, and he also had surgery on his throwing elbow to remove a bone chip. That’s a lot of work done for a guy who has battled various injuries since he debuted with the Nats in 2007. Don’t get me wrong, I love Flores and have thought for a while he’s capable of being an All-Star catcher. But he’s not there yet, and there’s no guarantee he’ll ever get there if he can’t stay healthy.

As the Nats found out last season, you can’t get away with career backup catchers forced into everyday duty. With Flores out most of the year, Josh Bard and Wil Nieves were overexposed. Ask either of those guys to catch 30-40 games a season and they’re perfectly acceptable. Ask them to catch any more than that, and it quickly becomes clear they’re not capable of it. So given the uncertainty around Flores, the Nats needed to upgrade behind the plate.

It’ll be interesting to hear, though, what the Nats told Pudge in their pursuit of the 38-year-old free agent. Did they tell him he’ll only start if Flores is injured, or did they offer him some assurance that he’ll be the No. 1 guy. Rodriguez has never been a backup in his career, he’s always been a starter. He’s never had fewer than 389 plate appearances in a season. And I cannot imagine him agreeing to sign a two-year deal with baseball’s worst team to be a backup. Maybe he’s willing to come off the bench for a playoff contender. But not the Nats.

Even if Flores proves to be healthy, there’s a strong argument to giving Pudge the starting job. The Nats have a pitching staff loaded with promising, young arms who are being thrown into the fire (perhaps before they’re truly ready). What better asset to have at their side than one of the greatest catchers in the history of the sport? Mark my words, Rodriguez will make John Lannan, Craig Stammen, Ross Detwiler, Stephen Strasburg and everyone else on Washington’s pitching staff better.

This isn’t the first time Pudge has signed with a 100-loss team. After helping lead the Marlins to the 2003 World Series title, he stunned everyone by signing with the 119-loss Tigers for four years and $40 million. Was he crazy? No, he felt he could help Detroit’s young staff mature and turn it into a winner. Well, three years later, the Tigers were in the World Series.

Are the Nats that close to duplicating Detroit’s turnaround from earlier in the decade? You wouldn’t think so. Then again, perhaps Pudge senses something the rest of us don’t. And given this future Hall of Famer’s track record, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

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Mark Zuckerman

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