The echoes of 1986 aren't new to this year's Nationals team. Budding superstar starter? Dwight Gooden with that year's Mets and Stephen Strasburg now, that's one. All-world outfielder Darryl Strawberry then, Bryce Harper now? Yep, that's another. Davey Johnson in the dugout for both teams, skippering a club with the best record in baseball? That just makes things easy.
But seeing Johnson manage the Nats generates other similarities between those eventual world champs of '86 and this year's contending club, and that has everything to do with who he’s using and how he’s using them. It's something that should keep changing for the better down the stretch as the Nationals heal up -- assuming they stay healthy, of course.
Here’s a short, non-comprehensive list of things these Nats and those Mets have in common, each of which bears watching as Washington takes its shot at its first postseason appearance:
1. A deep rotation: When talking about the Nationals’ pitching staff, the focus tends to go to Strasburg's workload and the potential horrors of life after this newfangled Operation Shutdown (no apologies to Derek Bell necessary) gets put into action. But one of the interesting things about the Nats is that they stockpiled so many starting pitching options that whatever they eventually decide to do, it isn’t like they’ll be stuck with replacement-level pitching talent once they have to turn to a replacement for Strasburg.
Not that John Lannan, Tom Gorzelanny or even Zach Duke will weave anything like the same magic Strasburg does when they’re on the mound. All of them are significantly more defense-dependent than Strasburg, but that goes for almost everybody who isn’t as strikeout-savvy as Strasburg. Happily for anybody who throws strikes and gets the ball in play with the aplomb that Lannan, in particular, commands, the Nationals defense ranks tops in the NL in Defensive Efficiency at .708. And between Lannan, Gorzo and Duke, it isn’t like starting in the major leagues will be some sort of new experience.
Perhaps the more relevant question is if Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler will wilt when the spotlight is no longer on Strasburg, but that seems speculative at best. Jackson has postseason experience, and Gio and ZNN have been top-ranked talents most of their adult lives. Weep not for Washington’s rotation if Strasburg has to sit for a bit.
And the ’86 Mets? They got great work from Rick Anderson in the rotation when they weren’t relying on their front five of Gooden, Ron Darling, Bob Ojeda, Sid Fernandez and Rick Aguilera. That was after Bruce Berenyi had to be given up on, so you could say the Mets had to go at least seven deep. Then as now, it pays to go deeper than five in your rotation.
2. Outfield playing time “controversy”: For Johnson, the man filling out the lineup cards, it was picking between Mookie Wilson and Lenny Dykstra in center field back then. Perhaps it’s Roger Bernadina and Jayson Werth now. Set aside moping about their relative price tags for the time being -- it isn't my money or yours, after all -- but Johnson arguably has as nice a problem today as he had back then. Bernadina offers a good OBP and some speed, Werth has power and patience. Now as then, Davey gets to play matchup games and exploit his depth so that nobody’s rest day among his outfield regulars costs the lineup too much.
3. Power to spare: The Nats rank in a five-team pack grouped up behind the two league-leading home run tallies of the Brewers and Reds, while the '86 Mets finished third in the league. Keep in mind what’s involved with where the Nats rank, though: They were without Jayson Werth and Michael Morse for major portions of the season, and lost Ryan Zimmerman for a major chunk of time to boot. Now they’re all back, and they’re all capable of putting up plenty of runs. If the Nationals light up the scoreboards down the stretch, don’t act surprised.
4. Bench bats: Those '86 Mets had Lee Mazzili, Tim Teufel, Danny Heep ... guys who could help you score runs in a pinch. This year’s Nats have Tyler Moore and Chad Tracy both able to spot at the corners and produce power in pinch-hitting roles. It’s harder to make room for those kinds of guys today, but in the age of the 12-man pitching staff, Davey Johnson’s found a way. And one of the big reasons why? That’s next.
5. A super-sub: The ’86 Mets had Kevin Mitchell moving all over the place. I know, you might remember him as the bigger guy catching balls bare-handed in left field for the Giants. But in 1986, Mitchell started 20 games at short, six in center and played all four corners. That’s handy as a roster expander, which is exactly what Steve Lombardozzi has given the Nats this season, stepping into the everyday lineup at second base with Ian Desmond out, but he’s started at short, third and left.
Like I said, it’s far from comprehensive, but it’s a start. So look beyond the SAT-like comparisons, this is one Davey Johnson team that’s very much like the other for more reasons than just the big names.
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