The Washington Times - April 2, 2011, 01:03PM

In the two catchers on their roster, the Nationals have a future Hall of Famer and an up-and-coming 23-year-old considered one of the best catching prospects in the major leagues.

And while Ivan Rodriguez was this team’s Opening Day catcher, Wilson Ramos will get the start today and thus begin the transition for the Nationals — and Rodriguez — toward playing the younger, potential-laden Ramos in an everyday role.

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In the first three series’ of the season, Rodriguez and Ramos will alternate catching, so that neither accumulates too much rust. But as the season progresses, Ramos will see more time and will be allowed to grow into the role.

“With all the respect you’ve got to give Pudge, he’s a Hall of Famer, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “He still does a great job behind the plate, blocks balls, but we’re going to get into a situation, and Pudge… He completely understands that we’ve got to develop Ramos’ game.”

“Ramos is a guy that we really have great expectations for,” Riggleman added. “He’s a young guy that is going to break in. We don’t really want to break him in catching minimal games. There are going to be a lot of days where Ramos is out there and Pudge is completely on board with that.”

Riggleman sat down with Rodriguez, who started his 20th consecutive Opening Day on Thursday, to discuss the situation with him. Riggleman called it one of the “better conversations I’ve ever had with a ballplayer.”

“I had no problem,” Rodriguez said of the chat and the implications that he will not be playing every day from here on out. “I know that (Ramos) is a great player. He’s the future of our ball club. I’m here to work with him.”

“I’m a grown man,” he added. “I’m a professional… The conversation was great. He saw from me the person that I am… I told (Riggleman) ‘The only thing that I want is to have a better team every day.’ I’m a winner. I’ve been in the playoffs, I’ve been in the World Series already. I’ve been on good teams and I learned from those experiences. That’s what I would love to bring here, especially to the young guys.”

And Ramos is one of the young guys the Nationals are expecting to be a stalwart in their lineup for years to come. After coming up in the Twins organization, playing behind Mauer, and now with the catcher he considered his favorite as a kid, Ramos has been around some of the game’s best at his position.

But as a player who has shown incredible potential to hit for a high average and hit for power — and one the pitchers feel comfortable throwing to — it is time for the Nationals to thrust him into a role where he can thrive.

“I’m very excited for this opportunity,” Ramos said. “I was waiting for this. I will learn with Pudge, he’s going to teach me a lot… and I will try to do the best I can.”

Riggleman hesitated to call Ramos the team’s No. 1 catcher, though, preferring to label them as “two No. 1’s.”

“I think we’re going to move toward that,” he said. “But we don’t want to count our chickens too early here. We’ve still got to play Ramos. We can’t just assume he’s going to go out there and overwhelm the league or something.”

Rodriguez is 183 hits away from career hit No. 3,000 a milestone the catcher does not underestimate. Rodriguez has said repeatedly that he’d like to play three or four more years and he added today that he’d love for it to be in a Washington Nationals’ uniform. It could be a slow, arduous march to 3,000, though. In 2010, in 398 at-bats, Rodriguez had 106 hits. If Ramos comes on the way people anticipate him to, Rodriguez could see considerably less at-bats this season.

“(3,000 hits) is important,” Rodriguez said. “It’s important for every player. I’m not that far away… You want to work hard and go to those goals. To be able to get 3,000 hits at this level, especially the way baseball has improved over the years, it’s pretty awesome.”