VIERA, Fla. — Five springs ago, Jesus Flores arrived at Washington Nationals camp as a burly 22-year-old catcher. He had a rocket arm, could handle the bat well enough to last on the Nationals’ 25-man roster throughout 2007 as a Rule 5 pick and was quickly deemed the “catcher of the future” in D.C.
Since 2009, though, Flores has spent more time learning about labrum surgery and rehabilitation, about the devastation and frustration that comes with a freak foul tip turning into a career-altering injury, than he has being that player. In the meantime, that “catcher of the future” label was peeled off his jersey and slapped onto that of his countryman Wilson Ramos.
But as the Nationals prepare to open their Grapefruit League slate this weekend, for the first time since a foul off the bat of Arizona’s Chris Young struck him in the right shoulder, Flores is feeling like himself again. Even if he’s himself in a lesser role on the Nationals’ roster.
“I feel excited,” he said. “Actually, I feel like the first year I came here.”
It’s a refreshing feeling for Flores. After so many months (that turned into years) of uncertainty - from an injury that went from a bruise to a stress fracture to a superior labral tear from anterior to posterior - he’s found his game again completely.
When the Nationals’ catchers began working on throws to second base Friday, coaches said Flores’ progress, even from a year ago, was astounding.
“[Last year] was still, for me, a rehabbing year,” Flores said. “Even though I was playing, I never felt I was losing the fear of throwing and doing too much stuff without worrying about my shoulder.
“This year is totally different.”
Flores went home to Venezuela this offseason to play for the Navegantes de Magallanes in the Venezuelan Winter League, part of the plan for him to gather 500 or so at-bats from the start of the 2011 season until the start of this spring. He played almost every day and added 218 at-bats to the 295 he accrued between the minors and the majors in 2011, while hitting .330 with a .368 on-base percentage and a .514 slugging percentage. He opened eyes inside the Nationals’ organization and out. He also regained the confidence he had been without for so long.
“When he first came over here, he had a cannon,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who suggested as an adviser at the time that the Nationals select Flores from the New York Mets in the 2006 Rule 5 draft.
“I can say now he’s a lot closer [to that],” Johnson added. “To a man, when we critique him in [the coaches’ conference room], we’re really pleased. We really think that the work he did in the winter league erased some, probably, mental restrictions he’d put on himself to baby the arm.
“He’s not 100 percent back, but he’s awful close.”
When Flores was called up to the major leagues in July last year after Ivan Rodriguez went down with an oblique strain, his arm strength was an issue. Runners would attempt to steal almost at will and 16 of the 20 who tried succeeded in his 22 games behind the plate.
But with time, and through work early most afternoons with former bench coach Pat Corrales, that zip began to truly return. In Venezuela, he was able to continue building — while not allowing the daily repetition to break him down.
The result, for the Nationals, couldn’t have been better. With one of the most fortunate catching situations in the major leagues they’ve got either a solid backup to Ramos or a valuable trade chip if Flores plays as well as he feels.
“I can’t wait to watch those two play all year,” bench coach Randy Knorr said.
But Flores still doesn’t see himself as a No. 2 catcher, even if he’s changed. One player noted that before Flores got hurt he was physically more imposing — more like the man who’s taken the No. 1 job in his place, Ramos. But this is who he is now: a 6-foot-1, 230-pound, 27-year-old catcher who believes in his soul he’s still destined to be a starter someday.
“I know Wilson is the No. 1 and I’m happy for him,” Flores said. “He had a great year last year and he’s got a lot of future but I feel the same way. I can do more. … If I have the chance to play, it’s the only way I can show it.
“Right now, everything looks clear about No. 1, No. 2, but for me, in my mind - we both want to help the team win and that’s what we care about first - personally [being a starter] is more what I want.”
NOTES: Jayson Werth (back spasms), Adam LaRoche (ankle), Chad Tracy (knee) and Yunesky Maya (flu) all missed the majority of the Nationals’ workout Wednesday. Werth, who sat out Tuesday as well, was feeling well enough to take batting practice indoors and shag fly balls in the outfield. LaRoche tweaked his ankle running the bases on Tuesday and Tracy received a cortisone shot. None of the injuries is considered serious.