Johnson, Nats Have No Idea on Return

First baseman Nick Johnson, who broke his right leg on Sept. 23, walks toward the training room after he reported to spring training. No one ruled out the possibility that he could miss the season.
First baseman Nick Johnson, who broke his right leg on Sept. 23, walks toward the training room after he reported to spring training. No one ruled out the possibility that he could miss the season. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2007

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 16 -- Nick Johnson still walks with a bit of a hitch in his step, can't jog at all and won't be swinging a bat with the rest of the Washington Nationals next week or next month. In fact, as Johnson arrived at spring training Friday, his return from a broken right leg seemed as uncertain as ever.

Asked when he might return, Johnson casually offered June as a target, one which would represent a delay from doctors' assessments last month. But the club said it won't have a better idea until at least Monday, when team physician Benjamin Shaffer will look at Johnson's latest X-rays. The overall message: No one knows when the player Manager Manny Acta called "the most productive hitter we had here last year" will again take to a major league field, and no one ruled out the possibility -- however slight -- that Johnson could miss the entire season.

"We can't put a time on Nick's return," Acta said after consulting with the team's medical staff. "You heard May. You heard June. We just can't put a time until the X-rays get evaluated and he shows progress in the rehab program."

General Manager Jim Bowden has been consistent in his predictions about Johnson all winter: He won't make any. Bowden reiterated Friday that he won't know anything about a possible return "until we see him on the field."

"Right now, there is not enough information or data to put a timetable on it," Bowden said.

Johnson said a June return "is in my head" but admitted, "I just threw it out there. I don't know." Asked if he could miss the entire season, he said, "I hope not." Acta, asked the same question, said, "We're going to miss him whether it's for a month or for six months."

Johnson suffered the injury in a violent collision with right fielder Austin Kearns on Sept. 23 at Shea Stadium in New York. He had surgery that night, and Shaffer originally predicted a swift healing process, saying the next day, "Do I think spring training is realistic? Absolutely."

But Johnson healed slowly. When he failed to gain flexibility in his hip and leg late last year, he underwent a pair of surgical procedures to remove scar tissue and screws from the leg.

Thus, the Nationals' first baseman for the first two months of the season likely will come from a group that includes prospect Larry Broadway, slick-fielding veteran Travis Lee or newly signed Dmitri Young. Robert Fick, a utility man who can also catch and play the outfield, would be a possibility if the others don't come through.

"Larry Broadway gets the first shot," Bowden said, an indication that they would prefer the 26-year-old -- a third-round pick from Duke in 2001 who hit .288 and drove in 78 runs for Class AAA New Orleans last year -- to develop into a major league hitter.

"It's time to do it," Broadway said. "I feel like it's about time. I feel like I'm coming into spring training trying to be even more prepared."

Lee, 31, is a .256 career hitter over nine seasons and could be the best defensive option. Young, a 33-year-old with a recent history of legal and substance-abuse problems, signed a non-guaranteed minor league contract on Wednesday and won't participate in major league camp unless he impresses against minor leaguers.

"The good thing is we have options now," Acta said. "The depth that we have over there, we didn't have before."

Still, even if Broadway develops into a competent major leaguer or Lee rebounds from a season in which he hit .224 for Tampa Bay, the Nationals' lineup is in part built around Johnson's ability to get on base. Last season in the National League, only St. Louis's Albert Pujols and Florida's Miguel Cabrera had a higher on-base percentage than Johnson's .428. His OPS (on-base plus slugging percentages) of .948 was eighth in the NL, buoyed by his 46 doubles.

"He's a guy that gets on base," Kearns said. "He's going to hit, but he takes a lot of walks. . . . He's going to drive in runs."

For a bit of irony, it is Kearns who will slide into Johnson's normal spot as cleanup hitter. The two have maintained close contact since the injury, frequently text messaging each other over the winter, whether the subject was fantasy football or the NFL playoffs. But they have a different take on the accident. Johnson has watched it.

"I just wanted to see it," he said. "I just looked at it a couple more times, just watch the leg flop."

Kearns hasn't. "Didn't really care to," he said.

With or without Johnson, the Nationals are expected to struggle this season. Because of the rebuilding effort, team officials said they would be cautious about Johnson's return.

"We're not going to jeopardize 2008 and years beyond 2008 just to get Nick Johnson over here two, three weeks earlier," Acta said. "No, not at all. Nick is not going to be on the field until he is 100 percent ready to go."

Johnson seemed to endorse that approach -- whenever he returns.

"When the bone heals, I should be ready to go," Johnson said. "I don't want to come out and be limping and do something where I might hurt my back or blow out my knee. [I need to] just get things strong, because once I get out there, I just go."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company