Day 2 drawing to a close

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After last night’s surprise midnight heist of catcher Ivan Rodriguez—a deal met with plenty of confusion and some disdain at the Winter Meetings—the Washington Nationals went back to work on their goal of finding a veteran starter. But the ripples from the Pudge signing kept circulating.

It’s not a stretch to call the move one of the most surprising made this week, and next to the three-team blockbuster trade that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees, I haven’t heard any deal that’s been talked about more. I spoke to plenty of people who don’t consider Rodriguez a mentor and said he’s shown no interest in being one in the past. Team officials, however, painted a different picture of the 38-year-old catcher.

“He’s a giving player,” one team official said. “He’s unselfish with his time and knowledge.”

I’ll have plenty more on the deal in tomorrow’s paper, but here are the main points of why the Nationals did it and what they expect it to do:

—First—and this is probably the most important point—the team clearly has doubts about Jesus Flores’ future. The catcher, who is coming off shoulder surgery and might not be ready for spring training, could lose significant playing time to Rodriguez, who the Nationals expect to play 70-80 games. And once the platoon ends, it could be minor-league player of the year Derek Norris, not Flores, who takes the job back full-time. One team official said Norris could be the everyday catcher by the end of 2011 or the start of 2012.

—The second year was what made the deal happen. The Nationals felt there were other teams offering more than $3 million for next year—a contention met with plenty of skepticism from sources who thought the Nats might have fallen for a Scott Boras ploy—and knew they needed to add a second year as a kind of premium for getting Pudge to a bad team.

—Washington had interest in Rodriguez since late this season, and he was their No. 1 option for a backup catcher. The team is confident in its vetting process, believes Rodriguez wants to be in Washington and will fit well with Flores, who is also represented by Boras. Again, plenty of people thought the fit was a rough one—they figured Rodriguez didn’t want to be a backup on a bad team. We’ll have to see who’s right over the next couple of years.

To me, the most interesting thing about the events of the day is the apparent lack of confidence in Flores. This is a player who’s been touted alongside Ryan Zimmerman as one of the building blocks for the future, and was handed the starting job over Paul Lo Duca in the middle of 2008. Then, he came into 2009 as the unquestioned starter. He’ll need a big season to silence doubts about his ability to produce over a full year, but will he get that chance with Rodriguez there?

And here’s the other interesting point: If Flores doesn’t enter 2011 as the starter, it’s conceivable the Nationals could be in Year 7 of their building project having produced only one legit position player from their own system—the third baseman they took when this all started in 2005. I spoke to an executive familiar with the Nationals today who doesn’t believe first baseman Chris Marrero will be ready to play every day before 2012, and thought he would be at Class AA Harrisburg again this year. He felt the team should extend Adam Dunn’s contract by at least a year, to cover themselves at first base.

And Norris will enter the 2011 season unproven. There’s a chance one of the middle infielders (Ian Desmond or Daniel Espinosa) is playing every day by then. But among homegrown players, only Zimmerman is a safe bet to be in the team’s lineup.

Now, the pitchers are obviously a different story. John Lannan has two strong seasons, and seems to have proven himself in the majors (the executive I spoke to believes the Nationals will start exploring an extension for him this season, starting around $10 million over four years to buy out his arbitration years and possibly his first year of free agency). Jordan Zimmermann was impressive before Tommy John surgery, and still projects as a No. 2 or No. 3 starter. And Stephen Strasburg could accelerate the team’s development almost by himself.

But the Nationals have struggled to develop position players, and their doubts about Flores compound the problem. And signing Rodriguez is a sign of a very different strategy than the one the Nationals have used so far.

One more note: The Nationals signed outfielder Jerry Owens, an 2003 Expos draft pick, to a minor-league deal. He stole 32 bases for the White Sox in 2007, and could compete for a spot as a backup outfielder.

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