The way Davey Johnson talks to reporters is nothing like what most of his contemporaries do. His daily media sessions have the feeling of an open workshop, conducted away from microphones and cameras, where the manager can tell stories and think his way around all sides of a question without the structure of a press conference.
Coming from a writer, that might sound like a self-serving observation. But it's important, because in those stories and open-ended answers, Johnson offers a window into what he's thinking about the team he's managing. And yesterday, he gave a long, thoughtful dissertation about where he thinks the Nationals are at halfway through the 2011 season.
Though the Nationals are a game over .500, doing enough to harbor faint hopes of a playoff run, Johnson has a more pragmatic view of the club's current state. The Phillies and Braves both went to the playoffs last year; they've got two of the three best records in baseball. In a division that's quickly becoming as tough as the American League East, where only the Rays have been able to get past the Yankees and Red Sox in the last 15 years, Johnson knows the Nationals need a similar developmental process to what Tampa Bay used.
On Thursday, he sounded less concerned with where the Nationals finish this season and more consumed with the task of answering questions and plugging holes on a roster where he saw plenty of them before this season.
"I consider the National League East to be a tough division, just like the American League East," he said. "I compare those two divisions. Everything's important to me that happens today, with an eye on tomorrow. I want the things that happen today to be a building block for tomorrow. Under my watch, I want to feel like, at the end of this season, whether we make the playoffs or not, there are very few question marks going into the spring, and a lot of guys are settled into roles where you're not going to need that type of role player in the coming season. If you develop properly, the byproduct of that is winning. If you don't, then you lose.
"I'd like to be 15 games over .500; 20, 30, and I'm going to manage my starting pitchers and my bullpen so we're capable of winning a lot of games in a row, not just winning every other one. Starting spring training next year, if I do my job properly, there will only be one or two question marks."
It's possible the Nationals could take the rest of this month to add a piece for this year, but consider this: On June 9, when they were 27-36, they were 10 games behind the Phillies and eight behind the Braves. They're 18-8 since then - and they're 10 1/2 games behind the Phillies and eight behind the Braves.
Now, Philadelphia and Atlanta have aging pitching staffs, and the Nationals could be poised to overtake them in a year or two. But when they are, it's going to have to be because they have the pieces to come up to the level those teams are at now. And they won't be alone - the Marlins are struggling this season, but they have a core of young talent that's deeper than what the Nationals have.
The opening will probably present itself at some point, but when it does, the Nationals have to make sure they're in position to jump through it. Organizationally, they're probably not at that point now, and it doesn't seem like they'll be able to get there by trying to patch a hole this month.
If he can give some young players enough time to prove themselves or weed themselves out, though, Johnson would likely view this season as a success.
"The Phillies are further along. Atlanta has been there forever, and they're further along," Johnson said. "We're climbing. Our farm system is getting better. The talent at this level is getting better. Where this infield is, that's a good infield. (Adam) LaRoche is not going to play until next year - does that mean (Michael) Morse is the left fielder or the first baseman? We'll know more about what we're going to do after a full season of Morse playing every day. We didn't do that last year. He had a good year, but he wasn't an everyday player. Now we're trying to establish him as an everyday player. The same way with the center fielder, the same way with the shortstop, the same way with the catcher. Those are four big holes. The second baseman is getting established. Those were huge holes last year. I looked at the club in the Winter Meetings and said, 'Man, there are a lot of holes here you haven't answered yet.' And that was just in the starting lineup - four starters. They weren't sure of what we were going to do. My job is simple. I need to answer some questions about some players and establish some roles. They're going to do that, not me. I'm going to give them the opportunity. And that's more important for the organization than for me, because it has long-ranging effects. (For example), not over-asking something from a young pitcher, and then you've sent him down, he's traded somewhere else and he's an ace. We can't miss any of those guys. Just getting them established this year, we'll have next question marks next year. We'll really feel good about ourselves."