"Everybody in the lineup can hit the ball out of the ballpark," Davey Johnson told reporters on Friday when a reporter wondered how the the loss of some of the power in the lineup might affect or change things offensively for the 2013 Washington Nationals, "But I'm more concerned about just being a good hitter. Home runs, to me, come by accident. We've got a lot of guys who are still learning how to be, not a lot of guys, but how to be a real good hitter, and not expand the zone. That's what I'm more concerned about offensively."
The Nats' 70-year-old skipper, a former major leaguer himself, was talking about something he's mentioned often since the 2012 season ended with the 98-64 NL East Champion Nats' NLDS Game 5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. The veteran of 13 seasons as a player, 16 on the bench and half a century in the game expounded once again before the Nationals' final exhibition game on the growth he's seen in some of his players, Ian Desmond in particular, and the team as a whole, that has him thinking this might be the year when it all comes together in the nation's capital.
"We had a lot of strikeouts," Johnson said, diagnosing the problem offensively and noting that it wasn't just Desmond who made adjustments and improved significantly at the plate last season. "We expanded the zone and might have been trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark, this is [the] normal maturation process where guys become better hitters."
Ian Desmond's breakout season in 2012, in the opinion of his manager, was the result of a years-long process in which the 27-year-old, '04 Montreal Expos' 3rd Round pick finally became comfortable with himself as an offensive player. Over 154 games and 639 plate appearances in 2011, Desmond had a .253/.298/.358 line with 27 doubles, eight home runs, 35 walks and 139 Ks (21.8 K%) in a +1.2 fWAR campaign.
Desmond took it to another level in his third full season in 2012, posting a .292/.335/.511 line with 33 doubles, 25 HRs, 30 walks and 113 Ks (20.7 K%) in 130 games and 547 PAs, missing time with an oblique issue which caused him to skip his first All-Star appearance and land on the DL after the All-Star Break. "If you track [Desmond's] career," Johnson said on Friday, "When he started being more selective, and when he started knowing what kind of hitter he was, his strikeouts came down and his on base percentage went up and that's what you want to see in all young hitters."
The Nationals and their manager are hoping to see Danny Espinosa improve similarly this season. The Nats' second baseman told ESPN 980's The Sports Reporters this winter that he felt he'd made the necessary adjustments and had begun to figure things out in the second-half of last summer before what was later diagnosed as a torn rotator cuff sent his season into a tailspin. "I started to swing the bat better about halfway through the season," the Nats' '08 3rd Round pick explained, "until I got injured and found out that I had torn my rotator cuff in my left shoulder. That really set me back that last month when I was doing well."
Espinosa finished his second full season in the majors with a .247/.315/.402 line, 37 doubles, 17 HRs, 46 walks and 189 Ks (28.7 K%) in 160 games and 658 plate appearances over which he was worth +3.8 fWAR. Coming out of the All-Star break, however, after a rough first half, Espinosa had a .293/.344/.482 line with 13 doubles, nine HRs, 12 walks and 68 Ks (23.2%) in 56 games and 241 PAs from mid-July to early September (7/13-9/8) when he injured the shoulder on a diving defensive play against the Marlins. Espinosa had a .171/.247/.271 line with four doubles, one home run, seven walks and 26 Ks (33.7 K%) in 22 games and 77 PAs through the end of the year and then went 1 for 15 in the postseason.
Davey Johnson sees signs that his second baseman is set for a Desmond-esque leap in Espinosa's own third full season in the majors in 2013. Acknowledging all necessary caveats about the level of competition and not trusting Grapefruit League stats, the switch-hitting infielder had a .347/.372/.493 line with five doubles, two home runs, three walks and 17 Ks (21.7 K%) in 26 games and 78 PAs. The Nats' skipper thinks he's ready to take the next step in 2013.
"What I saw this Spring out of Espinosa was a great improvement," Johnson said, "He started being more selective. He was more direct to the ball, from both sides, and you'll see his on base percentage go up. And that's what you like. The more guys you can get to the plate, the more runs you're going to score and that's what I'm seeing on this ballclub."
Davey Johnson likes where his team is at heading into Monday's season opener with Miami, and he's pleased with what he saw from the entire team offensively this Spring. "It always helps to hit well," Johnson said, "Because it means you're learning more about yourself as a hitter and this club, we had a lot of young hitters, I mean, they expand the zone. I saw more guys, even the way they took balls out of the strike zone, was much improved, and then we attacked on balls in the zone that were in our happy zone. And when you see that, we're not perfect yet, but the improvement, to a man, on the way we attacked the fastball, is so much improved from the way it was two years ago when I came in here, so I'm very pleased where everybody is at as a hitter."
"This is not," Johnson concluded, "our lineup is not easy to match up against, and it's going to be tough."