Davey Johnson on Adam LaRoche, next season: ‘We have a higher ceiling than last year’

Alex Brandon/AP

Nationals Manager Davey Johnson flew to Washington from his home just outside of Orlando on Tuesday to accept an award from the D.C. Chamber of Commerce the following morning, his wife Susan meeting him here from New York. The chamber wanted to honor the 69-year-old manager for the Nationals’ historic season with their Hometown Hero Award at their annual luncheon at the Washington Hilton. 

The lifelong baseball man, the leader of the city’s professional baseball team, sat at the front of the room in a suit and tie, surrounded by business people, executives and local politicians. This isn’t Johnson’s typical setting, and what weighed on his mind instead of business partnerships and bottom lines were wisecracks, the next baseball season and bringing back Adam LaRoche.

The Nationals and the free agent first baseman have been talking for months now, with little recent progress. The Nationals have made their position clear and LaRoche wants to come back, but is listening to other teams’ offers. The Nationals, however, remain optimistic.

“I thought there were some positive signs from [General Manager Mike Rizzo] that he thought we could get something done before Christmas,” Johnson said, after the luncheon. “Adam knows we want him back.”

Where Josh Hamilton lands, the premier left-handed bat left available on the free agent market, could help determine LaRoche’s path. Two teams reportedly pursuing Hamilton heavily are the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners — both clubs that have also shown interest in LaRoche

The Nationals have insisted on holding firm on their two-year offer to LaRoche, who seeks the security of a three-year deal, and shot down the idea of an option for a third season. So, a potential hold-up in LaRoche’s case could be that whichever team loses out on Hamilton will increase its offer to LaRoche, possibly a three-year deal, which LaRoche could bring to the Nationals as leverage. And, remember, LaRoche has earned his right as a free-agent, particularly one coming off a 33-home run, 100-RBI and Gold Glove season, to explore any and every option available.

Mike Napoli, a free agent first baseman-catcher, agreed to a deal with the Boston Red Sox last week, a team that was interested in LaRoche. But a hold-up in Napoli’s deal, reportedly regarding his delayed physical, could further muddle LaRoche’s market.

Johnson, who has made his love of LaRoche and desire to lure him back widely known, has been closely following the news of Hamilton, hoping to keep tabs on where he will sign and the subsequent ripple effect on LaRoche.

“I’ve seen guys hold out, which I don’t understand,” Johnson said. “But I would want clarity on where I was going. He’s probably just off hunting somewhere, riding a horse somewhere.”

Beyond bringing back LaRoche, Johnson re-iterated his desire to added a left-handed reliever to the bullpen and a beefing up the organization’s starting pitching depth. 

“But the only area we’re a little short in is starting pitching,” Johnson said. “A lot of the studs are coming back from injury are probably in Double A, [Sammy] Solis and [Matt] Purke. There’s some new guys on our roster I haven’t seen. I heard about this [Erik] Davis who is having a heck of a winter. I’m interested to see the new guys.”

When Johnson was introduced to the room full of business people, he accepted the plaque, admired it and stood in front of the microphone at the lectern. And, in typical Johnson fashion, he started with a joke. 

“I hate to tell you this but every time I look at this award,” he said, “I’m going to think about how much it cost me.”

The crowd laughed. Johnson then asked his wife to stand up and be recognized. 

“I brought the wrong suitcase when I came up,” Johnson said. “And it didn’t have her clothes in it. So chamber fans, a lot of stores down here got some of my money.”

Applause and laughter.

“I love the Baltimore/Washington area,” Johnson continued. “My wish when I came here is that I wouldn’t get fired for the fifth time. But I really got a great group of guys at Nats Park. If you think this last year was a good year, let me tell you something: we have a higher ceiling than last year.”

Applause.

“Next year is going to be my last year and I’m going to go out with my fourth World Series ring,” said Johnson, ending his near 90-second acceptance speech, walking immediately off the stage to more applause.

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