- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — The words healthy and potential have been associated so much with Washington Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson that he probably could lay claim to them as part of his name — something like, Nick “If He Could Stay Healthy, He Has the Potential to Be a Great Hitter” Johnson.

He would like to just keep it a little shorter this year, though — just Nick “Washington Nationals Everyday First Baseman” Johnson.

So would the Nats, who see a healthy Johnson — batting either second because of his on-base percentage (.422 in 2003, .359 last year) or lower as a run producer — as perhaps allowing them to compete offensively in the powerful National League East. If he can play first base, it adds to the outfield depth, with four bodies — Brad Wilkerson, Jose Guillen, Endy Chavez and Terrmel Sledge — available.

If Johnson can’t be counted on, it likely means Wilkerson would move to first base and leaves the Nats in the same position as last year’s Montreal Expos — lacking depth.

“Nick is the key to our offense as far as I am concerned,” hitting coach Tom McCraw said. “If we want to be a good offensive ballclub, he is the key to that, if he is healthy and can perform the way we think he can perform. He has a lot to offer.”

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Johnson was offering some shots in batting practice yesterday during the second day of full-squad workouts, sending some blasts over the fence and spraying the field with line drives. Afterward, Johnson acknowledged the obvious: “The key is my health. I haven’t been healthy in awhile. I’m trying to stay healthy and get my swing back.”

It’s a beautiful left-handed swing, one at which observers have marveled while predicting Johnson’s success as a hitter. But McCraw said no one has had a chance to see the best Johnson can offer because he has spent too much time on the disabled list.

“He came up through the Yankees organization as a quality hitter and one of their top prospects,” McCraw said. “But he has spent a lot of time in the training rooms over the years, and if that happens, your talent is not going to surface like it is supposed to. Yes, if he can stay healthy, he can be a terrific hitter.”

Johnson, 26, spent eight seasons in the Yankees’ organization until being traded in December 2003 to Montreal with outfielder Juan Rivera and pitcher Randy Choate for pitcher Javier Vazquez.

To some Yankees fans, Johnson is the symbol of how the organization got away from the player development system that was the core of its success in the early 1990s — when prospects like Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera were given time to develop — and instead went back to the George Steinbrenner route of purchasing star veterans and trading away prospects.

Even with Johnson apparently set to emerge, New York signed Jason Giambi late in 2001 to a seven-year, $120million contract — one the club is choking on now, in light of Giambi’s physical breakdown last year and role in the steroid controversy. That made it clear Johnson was not the first baseman of the future in New York.

Johnson batted .243 with 15 home runs and 58 RBI in 378 at-bats in 2002, then .284 with 14 homers and 47 RBI in 324 at-bats in 2003. But he missed nearly half the latter season with a stress fracture in his right hand after missing the entire 2000 season in the Yankees’ minor league system because of a strained muscle in his right hand. Labeled injury-prone, Johnson was put on the trading block.

He did nothing to remove that tag in Montreal. He didn’t play for the Expos last year until May28 because of a strained right hand, then missed the last six weeks after being struck by a ground ball that bounced up and broke his right cheekbone.

“It was a bad hop,” Johnson said. “It was pretty painful, but that is part of the game. You can’t control the other things that will happen, but I want to play hard and give it my all.”

Playing hard runs in the family. Johnson’s uncle is former Philadelphia Phillies shortstop and manager Larry Bowa, who used to take Johnson to Candlestick Park when the Phillies played in San Francisco, near Johnson’s home in Sacramento.

“He would let me hit out there and be around the game,” Johnson said. He didn’t pick up any of the personality of his uncle, though, who was as fiery as Johnson is laid-back.

Just before the injury that ended his 2004 season, the Expos got a glimpse of the best of Nick Johnson. He was National League player of the week for Aug.9-15 after going 8-for-18 with two homers and 10 RBI. He wound up hitting seven homers, driving in 33 runs and batting .251 in 73 games in 2004.

But Johnson has never been hurt in a Washington Nationals uniform, and as long as it stays that way, he is looking forward to fulfilling that potential so often spoke of.

“I am real excited about coming to play in Washington,” he said. “We have a good team, and I want to be part of that by staying healthy and playing for a whole year.”

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