- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2008

In the business world, there’s a strategic decision-making concept that contends the results of a choice don’t necessarily make it a good one or a bad one.

Smart decisions can produce a bad outcome and vice versa if unforeseen circumstances enter the equation. In those situations, the theory says hindsight is worthless.

Which brings us to the Washington Nationals‘ catching conundrum. Four players occupy the position, and three don’t appear to have much of a future with the team beyond this season.

This situation probably has a longer shelf life than originally thought now that Paul Lo Duca is the de facto first baseman. Before Dmitri Young went on the disabled list Saturday, however, it appeared Lo Duca, Johnny Estrada or Wil Nieves could be traded or released once the Nationals needed to make room for Ryan Zimmerman.

But there’s where those unforeseen circumstances come in. In what has been a strange season across the diamond for Washington, perhaps no position embodies the Nationals’ swirling current of injuries, underperformance and emerging prospects better than catcher.

That’s why it’s tough to fault the Nationals’ front office for how it stocked the position this season, particularly when a team that’s all about unearthing pieces of its future seems to have found one behind the plate.

Let’s go back to December. The Nationals planned for Jesus Flores to be the starting catcher in 2009 and needed a veteran for one season. They could have stuck with Brian Schneider but liked Lastings Milledge enough that they felt they could part with Schneider and Ryan Church to get him.

Then they signed Lo Duca to a one-year, $5 million deal, hoping he would be a large enough offensive upgrade over Schneider to offset any defensive losses. Estrada signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal Feb. 1, giving the Nationals two veterans for 2008 while Flores presumably spent the year in the minors.

It’s certainly justifiable to ask whether the Nationals should have foreseen a dip in Lo Duca’s production or that Estrada’s elbow injury would linger well into this season.

But at the time, both players were low-risk, high-reward signings. If things didn’t pan out, neither would be around after 2008, a season in which the Nationals weren’t realistically expected to contend. And if things went well, Washington had a pair of veterans to bolster its lineup - or to trade away if their value climbed.

The other surprise with the Nationals’ catchers, of course, is how Flores has blossomed into a major league-ready catcher a year sooner than expected. He leads the Nationals with 40 RBI. He is fifth among Washington position players in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), having added 7.3 more runs than a readily available replacement.

That replacement level player, coincidentally enough, is Nieves, whose VORP of -0.1 is just below neutral. VORP doesn’t measure defense, and both Flores and Nieves have been impressive there. They also have commanded rave reviews from Nationals pitchers about how they call games.

Do those results redeem Washington’s decisions? Only in the way they have confirmed the Nationals’ evaluation of Flores. It certainly wasn’t the plan for him to start in the majors this season, and the way he has played has been a pleasant surprise.

The real indicator of how Washington has handled its catchers probably won’t arrive for several years, once Flores develops a track record. If there’s another question to be asked, it might be whether Milledge was worth giving up outfielder Ryan Church, not Schneider.

Second-guessing is always fun, and in sports it’s particularly easy in the short-term - especially with volumes of stats just a mouse click away.

But the Nationals’ strategy last winter was to acquire Milledge and find a short-term catching solution while Flores develops, and it should be evaluated on those two fronts. All the other immediate consequences are just white noise.



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