- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 9, 2009

INDIANAPOLIS

Late Monday evening, just before the midnight deadline for free agents to accept arbitration offers from their clubs, the Washington Nationals faced a dilemma. They had established early this winter their need for a backup catcher who could start for stretches if Jesus Flores’ shoulder injury didn’t heal as expected, and they identified one guy above all others they had to have: Ivan Rodriguez.

And now, as other clubs rang in with offers to Rodriguez in the hours before he could elect arbitration with the Texas Rangers, the Nationals had to choose: Should they offer a 38-year-old catcher a multiyear deal as a sort of premium to sign with baseball’s worst team, or should they let a chance to have a future Hall of Famer work with their young pitchers slip by?

It was that push-and-pull that ultimately affected the Nationals’ decision to offer Rodriguez a two-year, $6 million contract in a deal that could be announced with a news conference in the District later this week. They landed a veteran with an illustrious past and diminishing skills to lend some stability at a position where they might not be as set as they previously thought.

The initial purpose of signing Rodriguez is to give the team an everyday option if Flores isn’t ready to go at the beginning of the season. Several team sources said the Nationals envision Rodriguez playing between 70 and 80 games next season while mentoring Flores and working with Washington’s young starters.

But it also was clear Tuesday that the team’s patience with Flores, the former Rule 5 pick who was deemed the catcher of the future and handed the starting job in 2008, could be running out. One official said Derek Norris, not Flores, could take the job on a full-time basis as early as 2011. Norris was the Nationals’ minor league player of the year, and even though he hasn’t played above Class A Potomac, he is beginning to emerge as an option to replace Flores, whose usefulness might be limited to a temporary solution alongside Rodriguez until Norris is ready.

Flores was touted by former general manager Jim Bowden as one of the surefire pieces of the Nationals’ future alongside third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. But beyond mere flashes, he hasn’t been able to stay healthy long enough to lend credence to that idea.

He missed the final month of the 2008 season with a broken ankle, and shoulder problems limited him to 29 games in 2009. He hit .301 in that stint but has yet to prove he can play a full season. And though the Nationals are optimistic he will be ready for spring training, they showed this week how important an insurance plan is to them.

It’s why they pursued Rodriguez and offered him a deal that had reporters and executives at baseball’s winter meetings confused. Some said Rodriguez didn’t have enough left to merit a two-year deal despite assertions from team sources that the catcher had offers of one-year deals for more than $3 million and the second year was the key to landing him. Others said Rodriguez has never shown interest in being a mentor and doesn’t have the game-calling skills to fill the role anyway.

But the Nationals had been evaluating Rodriguez since late last season and put him at the top - by a clear margin - of their list of backup options. They checked with the catcher and his agent, Scott Boras, and came away convinced Rodriguez was on board with the role they laid out for him. And they vetted Rodriguez, talking to people who painted a different picture of him than the one floating around Tuesday.

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

Whether that will bring back adequate value on a two-year investment remains to be seen. But despite many perceptions of the deal, the Nationals were convinced Rodriguez was the free agent best equipped to give them what they need.

And that, apparently, is serving as a bridge at the catching position to the future, which might or might not include Flores.

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