The Washington Times - September 16, 2009, 03:31PM

Last night’s news that Jesus Flores has a torn labrum in his right shoulder and will require three to six months of rehab was like a punch to the gut for a Nationals team that’s already taken a beating all season. Not that Flores was expected to do much else this year — and the expectation is that he’ll be 100 percent by mid-spring at the absolute latest — but this wasn’t the kind of development this franchise needed right now.

You’ll remember that entering this season, the organization really had identified only two real building blocks among the eight positions in the field: Ryan Zimmerman at third base and Flores behind the plate. Six months later, the only other guy I’d put into that category is Nyjer Morgan (who’s also hurt). Josh Willingham and Adam Dunn certainly could be included, but only if they’re signed beyond 2010. The jury’s still out on Elijah Dukes. Shortstop and second base remain major question marks long-term.

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So the question now is this: Can Flores still be counted on long-term to be the Nats’ starting catcher? He’s only got 574 career major league at-bats, during which time he’s produced 16 homers, 99 RBI, a .260 average, a .313 on-base percentage and a .406 slugging percentage. Now, he looked very good through the season’s first month before suffering the initial shoulder injury. But we still haven’t seen enough sample size to know for sure if he could be a .300 hitter for a full season.

Flores also has proven to be susceptible to injuries. Obviously, the broken clavicle was a freak thing. The torn labrum, though, was probably the result of years and years of throwing. It will be interesting to see how his arm holds up once he recovers from today’s surgery. The Nats don’t just need him to be a good offensive catcher. They need him to be a good defensive catcher as well.

So, what do the Nats do heading into 2010? GM Mike Rizzo said last night that while the club will “explore all options,” he’s content with the group of backstops he’s got right now (a healthy Flores as the starter, plus Wil Nieves and Josh Bard as backups/insurance policies).

That’s all well and good, but that only works if Flores is 1) healthy and 2) productive. Right now, we can’t say for sure he’ll be either on Opening Day 2010. Do the Nats really want to go through another full season of a Nieves/Bard platoon? Based on the results this year, I’d say no.

Unfortunately, there are no viable options within Washington’s farm system. This organization is sorely lacking in catching depth at the upper levels of the system, which explains why no one was called up this month to serve as a No. 3 catcher. Derek Norris exploded this year at low-Class A Hagerstown and is going to rank among the top minor league catchers in baseball this winter, but he’s only 20 years old and it several years away. Bryce Harper, next year’s possible No. 1 draft pick, is only 16. You can’t even think about him entering the picture for four or five years, minimum.

So what do the Nats do? Is it Flores-Bard-Nieves again in 2010, or is it time to look elsewhere for some catching help?