- The Washington Times - Monday, May 11, 2009

It was the Washington Nationals’ top priority last winter, and members of the organization weren’t afraid to admit it. They wanted to add a big power bat, and they wanted him to be able to play first base.

Hence the Nationals’ very public pursuit of Mark Teixeira. And once that fell through, their pursuit and signing of Adam Dunn.

All the while, Nick Johnson sat idly by at his home in Sacramento, Calif., wondering how he would fit into all this once the season opened. Johnson, remember, was the franchise’s starting first baseman for the past five years and was under contract for 2009. Why would Washington be searching for someone else to play his position?

Ah, because of the 30-year-old’s lengthy injury history. He may have been counted on to start at first base each of the last five years, but he had yet to make it from April to October without landing on the disabled list. And seeing as how he had played in just 38 games the previous two seasons combined, how could the Nationals possibly count on him to be healthy?

Well, more than a month into the 2009 season, this much should be clear: The Nationals need Nick Johnson, now and in the future.

On a team full of talented-yet-erratic up-and-comers, Johnson is the reliable sure thing every team needs. He just does everything right. He hits. He draws walks. He plays solid defense. He doesn’t ruffle feathers. He is well-liked and well-respected by everyone who encounters him.

And because of all that, the Nationals might need to reconsider their ultimate plan with Johnson.

It has seemed inevitable since spring training that Washington would trade him to another team in need of a reliable, veteran first baseman willing to take a chance on his injury history. Such a move would allow the Nationals to move Dunn to first base and unclog their crowded outfield, allowing Josh Willingham to play left field on a regular basis instead of scrounging for at-bats.

But if the last month has proved anything, it’s that Johnson is incredibly valuable to this team for all those aforementioned reasons. Ask around the clubhouse and most everyone will agree: The past two seasons the team has missed Johnson more than anyone.

He’s one of the most productive offensive players in the game, combining a .317 average with a .405 on-base percentage that makes him the ideal No. 2 hitter in Manny Acta’s lineup. And his work in the field is as sparkling as ever, saving his fellow infielders from a couple of errors a night with scoops of errant throws.

Contrast that with Dunn, who has been shaky in the outfield and even worse at first base - he legitimately could have been charged with three errors in seven innings Saturday night - and it’s becoming obvious to the Nationals that the massive slugger cannot play that position 162 games a year. Dunn makes Dmitri Young look smooth at first base.

Is it too early to start talking about a contract extension for Johnson? Probably. Remember, it’s only a month into the season, and there’s plenty of time for him to suffer a fluke injury as has so often been the case in his career.

But if he keeps this up and stays healthy, the Nationals are going to need to think long and hard about locking Johnson up for at least one more year. Chris Marrero may one day be this franchise’s first baseman, but the top prospect is nowhere close to ready to take over and is looking at best at a September 2010 big league debut.

Just as they did with Cristian Guzman last summer, the Nationals might be wise to start considering an extension for Johnson, one that would keep him in the District for at least another year, maybe two.

Such an idea may have sounded ludicrous a few months ago when Washington was offering Teixeira $180 million to play first base for the next decade. But these days, Johnson seems like a more viable (and far more affordable) option for an organization that is coming to appreciate how valuable their current first baseman is.

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