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During Spring Training, manager Davey Johnson told a reporter the Nationals were going to finish in first place in 2012. It looks like Johnson may have been right on the money. Entering Saturday's action, the Nationals had the best record in baseball and were the only Major League team to reach 70 victories.
MLB.com caught up with Johnson on Saturday to talk about the Nationals, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Ian Desmond.
MLB.com: This is your best team since the Mets won the World Series in 1986. How does this Nats team compare with that Mets team?
Davey Johnson: I would never compare teams per se. If you look at position by position, the Nats team is younger, more athletic. We have a better defensive infield with more upside. The outfield has never been fully in place because of injuries and Harper not being here to start the season. The only young outfielder I was breaking in with the Mets was Lenny Dykstra. ... You look at the pitching staff, the Mets pitching staff was young -- similar to the one we have now. ... We are not really comparing apples to apples because the Nationals haven't played together as long. The '86 team played together for a number of years. ... As a baseball man, you look at where you are right now. We are still learning who we are. We had to do patchwork with the closing situation, with the catching, we had to make adjustments with Desi being out. I didn't have to deal with that in '86. All the circumstances are different. We are still a work in progress.
MLB.com: During Spring Training, you predicted the Nationals would finished in first place. They became the first team to reach 70 wins and have the best record in baseball. Did you expect the team to be this good?
Johnson: From a managerial standpoint, you evaluate talent, you have to have patience, make sure the players are comfortable, stay on track and go through their growing periods. It's easy to evaluate the talent.
I never worry about the won/loss record. The enjoyable thing for a manager is seeing the guys doing the things they should be doing. Then win, lose or draw, you know when they are playing up to their potential. If the talent level is not that good, then your record will reflect it. Then if the talent level is that good, then your record will reflect it. The wins and losses will take care of themselves. I never worry about how many games that we win or lose.
MLB.com: You have one more year remaining as a team consultant. Do you want to manage the Nationals next year?
Johnson: Again, that's not my decision. I'm under contract. That's the Lerners' and Mike Rizzo's decision. Last year, they went through their managerial search and my recommendation was, I think they should hire me. They changed my contract to one more year consulting and to manage this year. That was a decision made by the Lerners and Rizzo.
I know what my job description is right now. I don't worry about things that I don't have any control over. I can control some things here -- putting people in the lineup and making pitching changes. The one ambition I always have is, whenever I'm managing I want to leave that team in better shape than when I got there. I did that in every situation I was in. I always felt in five opportunities I've had, I left the organization -- after they fired me -- in better shape than when I got it.
MLB.com: Harper is in a slump right now. What is the problem?
Johnson: He is just a little overanxious. Opposing pitchers keep pitching him tough, in different ways. They don't really go after him. They respect his ability. He is a fighter. He is no different than [Danny] Espinosa or Desmond. Harper is learning what he has to deal with. I tell him, don't get over anxious, don't change anything. He has showed he belongs in this level. I think he has done a great job.
MLB.com: Is there anything you would like to see him improve?
Johnson: All he needs is experience. You make adjustments, but they are just small adjustments, nothing major.
MLB.com: Sometimes, the media forget that Harper is 19 years old. In retrospect, do you think the Nationals rushed him to the big leagues?
Johnson: Not at all. He fills a big void that we had. He had enough experience to go along with his ability and maturity to be up to the task. It's no different than what Espinosa has gone through, what Desmond has gone through or what every young player goes through. ... I'm pleased with the progression with all of them. I don't like to put any more pressure on any of them. He was ready when he came up. He showed that. He is going through a rough time, but that's part of it.
MLB.com: We know that Strasburg will be shut down. Do you have any idea on what his limitations are in terms of innings pitched?
Johnson: We have a very good medical staff. We have access to the best resources to the medical department available to us. We are talking about Lewis Yocum, James Andrews, all those people. And we have a very astute, smart general manager. It's their decision, as it was in Jordan Zimmermann's case. They look at it the same way I do -- what's best for today and tomorrow. They are the ones who have to make that decision, not me. That's other people's expertise. They weigh all the options.
They probably didn't expect us to be in a pennant race. That is a variable you have to put in there. They will tell me when.
MLB.com: How is Ian Desmond? When will he return?
Johnson: He is going to swing the bat a little today. I'm still learning how we treat oblique injuries. We used to call them rib cage injuries. I don't know what the brain trust [has in mind]. Again, that's above my pay grade in this day and time when things have changed.
MLB.com: What would it mean to have Desmond back?
Johnson: It's like having [Adam] LaRoche back. Desmond is an All-Star. You want you're All-Star back? Yeah. You have to admire the work that Espinosa and [Steve Lombardozzi] have done. ... The more important question is, when Desmond does come back, that's going to change my bench. We'll put Espi back at second. Lombo, he will get some playing, but it would mean resting more people.