By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2008
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 17 -- It had been five months since anyone in a position of power for the Washington Nationals had seen Nick Johnson swing a bat or field a ground ball, and they were not images anyone cared to remember. But late Sunday morning, on a practice field at the Nationals' spring training complex, those old images of a hobbled, pitiful player whose career appeared in mortal danger gave way to new ones of Johnson, finally healthy, smashing liners with authoritative leg-drive and ranging all around the first base bag to deftly pick grounders out of the dirt.
At the end of a heady first spring workout for the Nationals -- a day when formerly injured pitchers threw true and free, top prospects shined in their first bullpen sessions and the clubhouse began to fill up with early-arriving position players proclaiming themselves ready to win -- it was Johnson's impressive batting practice that produced the most smiles and superlatives.
"Phenomenal," said General Manager Jim Bowden, who watched Johnson's batting practice session flanked by several of his top lieutenants, plus Manager Manny Acta. "This was a big day for us."
"That was refreshing," Acta said, "because the last image I had of him last [September], taking ground balls and swinging the bat was a totally different image than what we saw today."
For Johnson, who hasn't played in a big league game since breaking his femur in a violent collision in the outfield in September 2006, the BP session was merely another day of work in what is now a 17-month rehabilitation process, although he acknowledged the inherent significance of doing it in front of the eyes of Bowden, Acta and the rest of the team's brain trust.
"Last time they saw me, it wasn't too good," Johnson said. "I was hobbling around, but I've come a long ways from that. It felt good. No real big worries."
Although reports out of Sacramento, where Johnson lives in the offseason, were almost uniformly glowing as to his progress, no one was willing to fully believe those reports until they saw Johnson with their own eyes. For a solid week, since both arrived in Viera, Bowden had resisted the urge to come down from his fourth-floor office and go to the practice fields where he knew Johnson was working out.
"I didn't want to jinx it," he said. The difference between Johnson's last BP session in September and this one, Bowden said, was "night and day, not even close." At one point, after watching Johnson turn his hips through a low, inside pitch and pull it down the line in right field, Bowden said, "That's a .420 on-base percentage right there!"
Indeed, if Johnson is healthy and holding down one of the prime spots in the middle of the Nationals' batting order, his prolific plate discipline and power would add a new, welcomed dimension to an offense that ranked 28th in the majors last season in OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage).
However, at least a couple of obstacles remain. For one, Johnson has yet to fully test his leg in game-speed situations or through other, physically demanding drills -- such as sliding. He also will need time -- having been away from the game for so long -- to regain the intricate timing of his swing against live pitching.
"He's not going to come out and automatically be Nick Johnson," Bowden said. "But as long as his body parts can move [properly] . . . the rest will come."
The other obstacle to seeing Johnson back in a Nationals uniform in April has to do with economics. In Johnson and veteran Dmitri Young, the Nationals have two first basemen -- neither of whom can play another position -- who are among the highest-paid players on the team (Johnson makes $5.5 million this season, Young $5 million) and who almost certainly could not both be on the team's roster on Opening Day if both are healthy.
And if one must be traded, Johnson's age (29, five years younger than Young) and productivity make him a more valuable trade commodity, and thus, the likelier of the two to be dealt.
"If Nick shows that he's the player that he was two years ago, which was a very good one, then at the end of camp we're going to have to make a decision," Acta said. "But it can't be made right now, because we have to see how healthy Nick is and if he's going to be able to catch up with the baseball activities in spring training, too."
As Johnson's BP session ended Sunday, and most of the observers began walking away from the batting cage, Acta stayed there and watched Johnson for a few moments as he picked up stray baseballs around the cage. What he saw was nearly as encouraging as what he had seen in the cage a few moments earlier.
"I'm even looking at him when he's not [swinging or fielding] to see if I can see any favoring or any limp or anything," Acta said. "And he looks normal. He looks good. Now we have to see how he can bounce back, and how he can take the everyday grind of spring training."