Nationals catcher Jesus Flores was just happy to be back in the major leagues last summer after a serious shoulder injury cost him almost two full seasons. Now he's hoping to take the next step forward.
A starting job isn't happening this season. Wilson Ramos, his fellow Venezuelan, took over that role in 2011 and will hold it again. But Flores still has a chance to see significant playing time as the backup catcher. So far this spring, he's showing signs of progress with a .275 batting average, three doubles and two home runs in 40 at-bats.
A former Rule 5 draft pick, Flores was the starter at age 24 in 2009 before a foul tip smashed into his shoulder. After surgery that fall, he could barely throw at spring training in 2010 and didn't play at any level that year. Even after he returned last season, the Nats put him at Triple-A Syracuse for the first 56 games. Only an oblique injury to Ivan Rodriguez in July gave Flores a chance to test himself in the big leagues again.
It was a decided mixed bag. He played in 30 games, giving Ramos a breather a few times a week, but batted just .209 with one home run and threw out four of 20 runners on the bases. Team officials have always liked how Flores calls a game behind the plate, but even for a backup catcher those numbers are shaky.
"[Runners] were taking advantage of me because I was coming back from all those injuries," Flores said. "Of course, I'm trying to improve more on my accuracy throwing to the bases and where I feel better. It's just that I need to relax and feel like I have done it before."
And so day after day this spring, Flores has worked with the Nats' staff. He spent one morning behind the plate last week picking up a ball tossed by a coach and gunning a throw to third base -- working on placement as much as speed or power. He may never fully recover the rocket arm that made him an intriguing prospect. But to stick in the big leagues he has to throw out more than 20 percent of base stealers.
Part of Flores' renewed confidence entering spring training came from his time playing winter ball in Venezuela -- something he wasn't even sure he could handle physically. But consistent at-bats with his club team, Navegantes del Magallanes, allowed him to supplement his sparse at-bats with the Nats in 2011. That extra effort won't win him a starting job with Washington in 2012 -- but maybe another team will be convinced.
"Last year was important for [Flores'] psyche to get playing time up here, but he wasn't satisfied with it," Nats manager Davey Johnson said. "He was not the player he was two years before, but he made a lot of strides. ... To me, he's back close to where he was when he broke in with us."