VIERA, Fla. — Sean Burnett worked through his repertoire pitch by pitch, knocking off the rust in a bullpen session typical of the early days of spring training. It would be a few more days before the left-hander and his fellow Washington Nationals pitchers had a chance to face batters, so Burnett was throwing for an active audience of one — catcher Sandy Leon.
Squatting 60 feet, 6 inches from Burnett, Leon absorbed everything he saw, adding it to his repository of information on pitchers throughout the Nationals organization.
“The best pitch is a slider,” Leon said later, ticking off the latest items on a growing mental list. “He’s got good location. He likes to throw the fastball inside.”
It was Leon’s first time catching Burnett, and chances are he won’t be working with the pitcher in a game that counts anytime soon. Leon, who turns 23 next week, spent all of last season at Single-A Potomac and has some work to do before he gets his shot at the majors. He knows he has no chance to win a big-league job out of spring training, but he spends every day laying the groundwork for the call he hopes will come someday.
The spring training story is much the same for two other catchers in Nats camp, Carlos Maldonado and Jhonatan Solano. Though at different stages in their careers than Leon, they know the Nats are set at catcher in the majors for the time being. Wilson Ramos is the starter, Jesus Flores is his backup and the rest are a blend of contingency plans and potential.
But those extra catchers are an indispensable part of spring training. Washington has 25 pitchers in camp and they all need someone to throw to, whether during early bullpen sessions such as Burnett’s or those scorecard-wrecking late innings of Grapefruit League games.
That’s where Leon, Solano and Maldonado come in. But far from serving simply as human backstops, the three catchers use every pitch they see as a building block for the coming season and years to come.
“We’ve got a good pitching staff and we enjoy that, when we take bullpens and you learn from all your pitchers,” said Solano, 26, who spent last season at Triple-A Syracuse. “When the time is ready and I’m called up … I know I need to have an idea what kind of stuff they have. I [listen] because I want to learn a lot on all the staff.”
Solano, like Leon, still is awaiting his first shot at the majors. Maldonado, meanwhile, provides a veteran’s perspective. At 33, he has seen big-league time with the Pirates (2006-07) and the Nationals (2010), sprinkling in 25 games and 62 plate appearances over those three seasons.
But Maldonado’s overall body of work in professional baseball is vast. He has played for 12 different minor league teams across six organizations since he broke in as a 17-year-old Seattle Mariners farmhand in 1996. Three years later, Maldonado was catching the likes of Randy Johnson and Jamie Moyer in Seattle’s big-league camp.
So it’s fair to say he’s been on the receiving end of some bullpen sessions in his time.
“Quite a few,” he said with a smile.
It could be a monotonous existence, catching all those pitches with nary a batter in the box, then following it with fielding work — blocking balls in the dirt, throwing to bases — and finishing the workout with catchers-only batting practice after the rest of the players have hit the showers.
But it isn’t just busywork. No one takes as much punishment over the course of a season as a catcher, and those bouncing sliders and foul tips take some getting used to. This is when it happens.
“You get tired,” said Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr, a former catcher who spent parts of 11 seasons in the majors. “But it’s good to do it for the season. It’s such a long season, and you’re basically just getting yourself in shape for the season. I mean, you go home and pass out sooner, probably, than the other players. But I enjoyed it. It never bothered me.”
That attitude pervades the Nationals’ catching corps. As Maldonado notes, all the extra work is simply “part of the job,” and if nothing else they all seem to relish the challenge.
This group in particular shares a special bond, with culture and language fostering a deeper camaraderie among the five catchers in camp. All but Solano are natives of Venezuela, and Solano was signed out of a tryout camp in that country after crossing the border from his native Colombia. All five also are bilingual, able to communicate easily with just about everyone on the team, but in their frequent conversations among themselves, they stick with Spanish.
“Five Latin catchers — it’s fun,” said Solano. “It’s fun because we’re talking during practice or in the clubhouse about our history, playing winter ball and all that stuff. It’s a good group.”
Their discussions are seemingly never-ending, from Ramos and Flores filling in the gaps in their already broad base of knowledge to Leon starting almost from scratch. And it is, “almost,” for Leon caught one of Stephen Strasburg’s rehab starts for Potomac last season. (“Amazing,” he said, his eyes brightening at the months-old memory.)
In Leon’s ideal world — and Solano’s, and Maldonado’s — he would be the regular catcher for Strasburg and the rest of the Nationals’ staff when the games really matter. That won’t happen anytime soon for any of that trio, but they’ll all keep putting in the work in supporting roles every morning, preparing for the day that it might.