Johnson managed an Orioles team with seven players with 21 to 50 homers and played on the great Baltimore teams of ’66 to ’71. Yet he shakes his head at what he sees around him: So much clay to mold.
He knows he’s been handed unfinished products. Strasburg has six career wins and Jordan Zimmermann has a lifetime mark of 12-18. The key relievers have never faced playoff-race pressure. Desmond and Espinosa can look raw at the plate. Morse has had only one fine season. And, until Harper proves he can play center field, that vital position is virtually a void.
Perhaps Johnson’s enthusiasm for this team, which sometimes borders on giddiness, may be tinged with his delight at being back at the helm after 11 years away from managing. But he denies it. “I don’t try to blow smoke. I try to be candid,” Johnson said Tuesday. When he took over the ’96 Orioles, he made it clear his clubhouse had flat-line, stat-focused vets who lacked fire. He raised hell. Now, in the Nats, he claims to see the opposite.
“It takes about five minutes to rate the talent [of a player]. The talent here is very good. Then you mix in the makeup. That’s off the charts on this ballclub,” Johnson said. “Performance is a direct function of makeup meeting ability.”
Rational expectation for the Nats is mid-80s wins and a respectable near miss at the playoffs. This just isn’t a team with enough offense or experience to reach the postseason, especially with Strasburg shut down around Labor Day, right? The best reason to suspect more is Johnson. He had a dramatic influence in his first full years with the Mets, Reds and O’s. He’s said if the Nats don’t make the playoffs, “they can fire me.”
And the Nats just sent Lannan to Class AAA to put Detwiler in the rotation until Wang gets back. Why? Detwiler, a sixth overall draft pick, has potential star stuff. This sends a message: We’re not kidding. Sentiment and money aren’t paramount, but winning extra games is crucial.
A post-Strasburg rotation of Gio Gonzalez, Zimmermann, Wang, Edwin Jackson and Detwiler might still make the playoffs and dream of advancing.
The team’s fans are comparably excited, but with a lot more anxiety and skepticism. What do you make of a team with head-snapping highlight ability — especially with the addition of pure-stuff lefty Gonzalez and the likely arrival of Harper — before they have even had a winning record?
“I’m a Cub fan. I grew up near Wrigley Field. I get it. I know how people in this area feel. ‘Don’t talk. Show me,’ ” Rizzo said of generations of delayed gratification by Washington fans. “Go out and perform. The players have to improve. Projection is a project. And I have to be a better GM.”
So far this spring, the Nats are certainly trying. Rizzo is obsessively punctual. In Viera, he got to a 9 a.m. meeting with Johnson and his coaches at 8:55. As he came in the door, the meeting had already ended. “What happened?” Rizzo said. “The meeting begins when Davey starts talking,” he was told. “When was that?” Rizzo asked. Answer: 7:15 a.m.
Each day, Rizzo had to arrive earlier not to miss his own meeting. One day, with no game scheduled, he showed up at 8 a.m. The baseball talk continued all day until 6 p.m. Finally, Rizzo said, “Hell, I’m going home.”
Nobody knows just how frickin’ bueno the ’12 Nationals will be. But there will definitely be plenty to talk about. And many a night, nobody’s going to want to go home.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/