- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009

PHILADELPHIA | This was supposed to be the season Jesus Flores broke out as an everyday catcher and solidified his place in the Washington Nationals’ long-term plan. Two separate shoulder injuries, a lengthy stint on the disabled list and a surgical procedure later and his standing within the organization is back in question.

Flores had surgery Wednesday to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, a procedure that will sideline him for six months, the team said. This comes after missing four months during the season with a broken clavicle.

Though the Nationals are optimistic Flores will return 100 percent and be ready for the start of the 2010 season, there are no guarantees about a timetable for his return. Nor are there any guarantees about his level of performance once he does get behind the plate again.

“I think his future is still bright,” general manager Mike Rizzo said, calling the ailments a couple of “freak injuries.” “I think once we get this fixed, we get him on track. I still think we’ve got a 24-year-old starting catcher.”

Flores, who turns 25 next month, has put up solid numbers in 574 big league at-bats in the past three years: 16 homers, 99 RBI, a .260 average. But he has yet to be able to string together a run of success because of injuries, making him a bit of an unknown quantity.

The shoulder troubles this season were particularly frustrating for the former Rule 5 draft pick. He suffered the broken clavicle May 9 when he was struck by a foul ball and needed four months to recover. The Nationals activated him off the DL earlier this month but limited him to pinch-hitting duties.

So how did he tear the labrum? Team officials believe the injury dates to spring training, when Flores had trouble throwing with full velocity. Multiple MRIs taken in the past five months showed no structural damage. It took an enhanced MRI this week to discover the tear.

“It’s probably something that was there for a long time,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said.

The Nationals now must decide whether to enter 2010 with Flores penciled in as the starting catcher, whether to bring back Wil Nieves and/or Josh Bard as backups and whether to look outside the organization for insurance.

“We’re going to look at all the options,” Rizzo said. “But catcher, with the people we have on staff right now and with Jesus, we feel comfortable where we’re at.”

Gonzalez struggling

The Nationals wanted to give Alberto Gonzalez considerable playing time during the second half of this season to better gauge the infielder’s ability to hit at the major league level. They’ve managed to do just that, but the result wasn’t what they had hoped.

After hitting .333 as a backup during the first half, Gonzalez has hit just .194 as a semi-regular since the All-Star break.

“His numbers have slipped because he’s gotten a lot more at-bats, and it’s tough for right-handed hitters - with as much right-handed pitching as you face - to stay up in that .300 range he was at,” Riggleman said. “But I think basically his numbers have gone down as a combination of the daily challenges of all that right-handed pitching he was facing and just getting acclimated to playing more.”

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