The Nationals are entering the final series of their last homestand before they’re able to expand their rosters. By the time they return home from a six-game road trip to Cincinnati and Atlanta, they’ll be able to add as many as 15 players to their roster - though it’s virtually impossible to imagine them calling up Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon or Matt Purke.
Still, there will be plenty of prospects available to the Nationals, including but not limited to: first baseman Chris Marrero, second baseman Stephen Lombardozzi and pitchers Tom Milone and Brad Peacock. And, of course, they’ll put Stephen Strasburg back in their rotation once he’s done with his minor league rehab assignment and ready to return from Tommy John surgery.
“He’ll probably be pretty good when he gets here,” Johnson deadpanned. “He’ll probably be able to keep us in ballgames, would be my guess.”
Johnson has had several mantras since he took over as Nationals manager at the end of June. One of them has been this: If you develop players properly, winning should be a byproduct.
That’s a different approach than what manager Jim Riggleman used in September; he would typically play his call-ups only when the Nationals were facing a team that wasn’t fighting for playoff positioning, out of respect for the competitive process and the veterans that had played all season. But that left only scraps of playing time for younger prospects who might have factored in the Nationals’ plans the next season.
With Johnson, veterans will still get plenty of playing time, but it’s more likely the Nationals will use a number of their prospects on a regular basis in September. He’s confident they’ll still be able to win by playing the rookies.
“I’ve got all kinds of checks and balances, plus the experience I’ve had in (developing players),” Johnson said. “That’s something that’s kind of ingrained in you, like how you run a spring training. Inserting young talent in the lineup, whether it’s a pitcher or position player, when it’s done, it’s done where everybody understands it. It’s not like (veterans) didn’t go through it themselves.”
Johnson had been hitting Espinosa in the No. 2 hole, and batting Desmond toward the bottom of the lineup. But Espinosa was batting .189 when he hit second, and he has an .878 OPS when hitting sixth. Desmond, in contrast, had most of his success hitting second last year, and got moved lower in the lineup this year after just two weeks hitting leadoff.
So Johnson flipped things around, putting Espinosa back in the No. 6 spot and putting Desmond in the leadoff spot, where he can run as much as he’d like to do.
“I just decided to accomodate them, their psyche,” Johnson said. “Like, I tell you I’m going to give a cookie to Ian and hit him second? He really thinks that I just came to my senses, regardless that his on-base percentage is about .280. Sometimes, when you manage, if you actually accommodate what they think, they’re a little more up for the task. And as you get to know the individual a little bit more, you try to accommodate more of what they think.”