INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Thursday afternoon, the Washington Nationals neared an answer to one of the many questions facing them this offseason by moving to the final stages of ensuring Manager Davey Johnson’s return next season.
They began to pursue other answers as MLB’s general manager meetings lurched forward, laying groundwork for the winter that included a sit-down between General Manager Mike Rizzo and agent Scott Boras.
Before they start making tweaks and additions to their roster, the Nationals have to solidify their manager’s position. The team and Johnson were nearing an official agreement on Thursday evening on a contract to bring back Johnson for the 2013 season, Rizzo said.
“I’m thinking any time now,” Rizzo said late Thursday afternoon at the Hyatt Regency hotel where the meetings are taking place. “Soon.”
Earlier Thursday, a person familiar with the talks said the Nationals and Johnson were “real close” to reaching a deal.
The deal will conclude lengthy but amicable negotiations that changed the language of Johnson’s pact with the Nationals. He had been under contract as a consultant for the 2013 and 2014 seasons, but now he is in line to receive a salary bump and the official position of manager.
Even as the talks progressed, Rizzo never expected any conclusion other than Johnson returning for his second full season in the Nationals’ dugout. Still, finishing the deal will allow the club to move forward with the rest of its offseason.
“We’ve been talking strategies, players, stuff like that,” Rizzo said. “It’ll clear everything off the table except for what we’ve been trying to do.”
The first, small step will be replacing third base coach Bo Porter, who moved on to manage the Houston Astros. Rizzo said the decision will be Johnson’s and that they have already discussed the candidates. The decision could come “swiftly” after Johnson’s contract is resolved, Rizzo said.
In his first full season as Nationals manager, Johnson guided the team to 98 wins and the National League East title, enough to make him one of three finalists for the NL manager of the year award to be announced next week. He said he had “unfinished business” in 2013 after the Nationals bowed out in a wrenching Game 5 NL Dvivision Series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. Johnson, who will turn 70 in January, would again be the oldest manager in baseball.
As Johnson’s deal moved close to a resolution, Rizzo continued with his business in Indian Wells. His day included a meeting with Boras, the powerful agent with whom he negotiated deals for Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Jayson Werth, Edwin Jackson and many other Nationals. Boras also planned to meet with Nationals owner Ted Lerner, who has a home in neighboring Palm Springs. (Boras would have to wait until after dinner on Thursday — Lerner hosted a hardball soiree for all 30 general managers.)
Speaking with a large pack of reporters, Boras described the Nationals as an ascendant franchise in prime position to reap the benefits of the rising profits across baseball.
“I think it’s been a huge year for the Nationals,” Boras said. “The franchise has bloomed. In Washington baseball, it’s spring. There’s a diamond full of cherry blossoms.”
Boras’s top free agent clients this winter included center fielder Michael Bourn, a possible target for the Nationals if they cannot sign first baseman Adam LaRoche, which would force Michael Morse to move to first base and open a hole in the outfield. Boras also represents right-hander Ryan Madson, a closer coming off Tommy John surgery whom he may push on the Nationals.
“They have an opportunity this offseason to build their bullpen,” Boras said. “I think they have an opportunity to really create some strengths where there were weaknesses, because the free agent market allows them to do that. The perception of the Washington Nationals, the revenues, it’s a great thing for the game.”
Rizzo seemed disinclined to tinker with the back-end combination of Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard, both of whom are due for raises in arbitration. He saw the team’s biggest need in the bullpen as either re-signing Sean Burnett and Michael Gonzalez or finding left-handers to replace them. But he did not rule out a run at Madson, either.
“If we have a chance to upgrade with an impactful arm, we certainly would consider it if it fits us,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know. It’s going to depend on what it costs and what type of performer he is. We feel good with the back end of the games. We feel really good with the seventh, eighth and ninth inning as is.”
Nationals note: Boras did not rule out Harper playing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, which will return this spring training. Rizzo said the Nationals had not yet been asked about their players participating, but he would support any Nationals who wanted to play. “I think it’s important to field the best Team USA that we can,” Rizzo said. “If we could help do that and it works for us, we would certainly be willing to volunteer the player’s services.”