The Nationals made official on Monday the long-expected move to solidify the start to one of the most anticipated offseasons in team history: They agreed to keep manager Davey Johnson in the dugout for the 2012 season.
It had been a quiet October for the Nationals as they were reduced to playoff spectators for the seventh time in their short history. But the decision to bring back Johnson helps keep them on a path they hope ultimately will lead to the playoffs in short order — and Johnson said Monday without hesitation that his goal for 2012 is to win the National League pennant.
Johnson, 68, who took over the helm of the Nationals on June 27, three days after the abrupt resignation of then-manager Jim Riggleman, signed a three-year consulting contract at that time. The contract included an option for Johnson to return as the team’s manager in 2012, but the Nationals would be required to conduct a managerial search following the 2011 season to comply with Major League Baseball’s hiring protocol — even if that search included Johnson, one of Rizzo’s most trusted advisors, as a candidate.
“It couldn’t have been a smoother, easier decision for me to bring Davey on midseason, and it was just as comfortable and easy decision after the season to pick up the option and make Davey the leader of the ballclub for 2012,” Rizzo said in a conference call Monday morning.
Now Johnson can set about putting his stamp on a team he spent much of the 2011 season trying to shape the best way he saw fit. His goals are clear: When next October rolls around, he expects the Nationals‘ offseason plans to be a distant thought.
Asked about his goals in a conference call, Johnson was blunt: “Pennant. Winning the pennant. Winning the division. Winning the National League.”
“I couldn’t have said that last spring,” he said. “I didn’t think the talent was ready, but after being there and seeing the progress that some of the young players made, I think we definitely can contend, and I would be sorely disappointed if we didn’t do just that. The talent is there.”
“I’m not just sticking out my chest and saying some hot air,” he added. “My baseball instincts tell me that that’s where we need to be, that’s where we need to go. And we can get there.”
In 83 games with Johnson as manager, the Nationals were 40-43 and came just one victory shy of a winning record for the year, finishing on a 14-4 tear. It was just the fourth sub-.500 finish Johnson’s ever had in 15 years as a manager — and all but one of those marks came in abbreviated seasons. With a full season in the dugout, aside from his first year managing the Dodgers, when they were 77-85, Johnson’s teams never have finished worse than 10 games over .500.
“He thinks you’re a professional, and he treats you like one,” Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said in September of Johnson. “We’re to the point where, a few years ago, that might not have been so good, but now we have a team that’s a little bit older. The majority of guys have been around for a little while, and they know what they need to do. He just lets guys get ready to play the way they want to play.”
“I enjoy him,” Zimmerman added. “I think he’s a really good baseball guy. He’s fun to play for. He sticks up for his players, and he understands what we’re going through because he was a player. … I think his attitude, the way he handles all the people, and the relationship, personally, that I have with him is great. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I think everyone respects him a lot.”
From the moment Johnson took over in Washington, he began the process of shaping the Nationals‘ roster for the 2012 season. While winning games remained paramount, Johnson paid special care to filling holes and testing players in positions where the team felt they should excel — an attempt to have as few question marks as possible heading into spring training.
He made his moves in late August and September to reflect that mentality. He shifted veterans Tom Gorzelanny and Livan Hernandez out of the Nationals rotation and made way for Ross Detwiler, Tommy Milone and Brad Peacock in it. All three performed extremely well in September and solidified significant opportunities to make the Nationals‘ starting rotation next year. He also moved a flourishing Ian Desmond into the leadoff spot and put Jayson Werth in center field in attempts to fill the Nationals‘ two biggest vacancies without needing a big-ticket free agent or a trade this offseason.
He didn’t tip his hand that he would like the man running the show to be him until the season’s final day, but Johnson saw the way his team played in September and knew he couldn’t leave things unfinished.
“Probably the last two or three weeks, seeing when I had more of the mixture of talent that I wanted on the ballclub and seeing how they all worked together, that was when I really thought, ‘Man, there’s so much more we can do here, and I need to be here to help see it along,’” Johnson said. “They’re such a great bunch of kids, and we haven’t even come close to the ceiling we’re going to get to. I really feel like I’m kind of their father figure. They respect me, and I’m the guy to kind of steer them along their path.”
All of Johnson’s coaches are expected to return as well, except for bench coach Pat Corrales, who will remain in the organization as an evaluator and adviser, much as he was before Johnson became the manager in June. The Nationals are not ready to name a new bench coach just yet.
“The only question I had about Davey taking over was: Did he want to do it, and was his energy level and his focus going to be there?” Rizzo said. “And even as early as during spring training of this year I saw a guy that just moved around better this year. … He had an energy about him and a bounce in his step that I thought to myself, ‘Wow, Davey’s really into it and really fired up for the season.
“He was the easy choice.”