Friday, June 24, 2011
Davey, Davey Johnson
By Christina Kahrl
OK, I know, it's not yet official, but if it comes to pass, talk about a possible bit of stathead wish fulfillment in Washington. With Jim Riggleman out, the Nats will reportedly wind up with Davey Johnson. Really? If you were worried about replacement level outcomes -- hello and good-bye, John McLaren -- it's hard to imagine how this could have turned out any better for the Nationals. In his 12 full seasons as a manager, Johnson has posted only one losing campaign (1999 with the 77-85 Dodgers), and 11 years where his teams were at least 10 games over .500.
Davey Johnson, a special assistant with Washington, last managed in the big leagues in 2000.
To be fair to Riggleman, the 422-game difference between how far under .500 Riggleman (662-824) is and how far above .500 Johnson has been (1148-888) since managing the Dodgers in 2000 cannot help but be exaggerated. Since helping get the Mets turned around in the mid-'80s, Johnson has generally only been tasked with win-now projects in Flushing, Cincinnati, Baltimore and L.A. That's significantly different than Riggleman's long, tough road through various tough-luck destinations like San Diego, Wrigleyville, Seattle, or D.C.
You can sympathize with Riggleman's lot up to a point -- 20 years ago, he was seen as an up-and-coming skipper, but now his name is going to be associated with Charlie Dressen's, at least if he's lucky. Almost sixty years ago, Dressen dared the Dodgers to give him what he felt was his due after two pennants. The Dodgers suggested he not let the door bruise his backside on the way out of Brooklyn, and as a result Walter Alston got to be the manager who presided over Dem Bums becoming world champs in 1955.
While the expectations are nowhere near as high for Johnson, if he really does indeed take the Nationals' job, he'll be walking into a positive situation like Alston did. With top prospects on the way and a decent crew of veterans already on hand, Johnson may not have to worry about his record sliding back toward .500. Not that he'll lose sleep over such things.
As a former Oriole from the glorious '70s, and as one of the best representatives of those who played for the Earl of Baltimore and went on to manage, Johnson has local glory. He also has his own storied success as the skipper of the 1986 Mets. Washington's blue-chip prospects Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, and eventually Bryce Harper, still have a lot to prove when compared to Davey's original Mets crew of Doc Gooden and Strawberry. But Johnson's track record for letting great young players blossom is cause for additional optimism for Nationals fans.
What Johnson does with the young talent on offense will be particularly interesting. Johnson rates as one of the better offensive managers in history, especially when it came to working with individual hitters, according to Chris Jaffe's Evaluating Baseball Managers. That will probably mean even more Wilson Ramos behind the plate at Pudge Rodriguez's expense, but I'm especially interested to see how the infield shakes out if Johnson's managing. What happens once second base prospect Steve Lombardozzi (.314/.368/.458 between Double- and Triple-A in his age-22 season so far) pushes his way up into the big-leagues? Danny Espinosa is already providing a ton of power for a second baseman, but if the Nats decide that Ian Desmond isn't going to get it turned around as their shortstop, it's worth remembering that Espinosa played almost exclusively at short through the minors. Espinosa could wind up moving across the keystone to short to see if Lombardozzi can give the Nats another middle-infield bopper -- and for a skipper who was willing to play Howard Johnson or a young Kevin Mitchell at short, you shouldn't discount his willingness to take a hit on defense.
The Riggleman situation, as Tim Kurkjian noted this morning, is nothing short of baffling and exasperating. But if Davey really does step back into a dugout, it might also be an inspired solution for a franchise poised with possibilities.