Nick Johnson Thinks He's Tony Gwynn These Days

Farid RushdiAnalyst IApril 23, 2009

ATLANTA - APRIL 12: Infielder Nick Johnson #24 of the Washington Nationals watches play against the Atlanta Braves April 12, 2009 at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

For the Washington Nationals, first base is a two-part question. First, what in the world are they going to do next year, and second, what in the world is going on this year?

Nick Johnson was the team's starting first baseman long before the Expos moved to Washington in 2004. But since first donning the "Curly W," he has been available for just 48% of his team's games, missing all of 2007 and 120 games last year. His four year contract is up this year, and his age (31) and frequent injuries make it a near-certainty that he won't be resigned this off-season. Because he won't bring a compensation pick as a free agent, he'll likely be traded before the July 31st trade deadline.

The Nationals have two players in their Minor League pipeline who could eventually take over first base, but neither of them are close to being ready. Twenty-three year old Bill Rhinehart, an 11th round pick in 2007, has looked good thus far, batting .278-23-132 in 719 at-bats. However, he's started slowly for Harrisburg, batting just .139 in limited play.

Chris Marrero is the heir apparent, but after one good season two years ago, he fractured his ankle early in 2008 and missed the second half of the year. He returned this spring in the best shape of his career, and he's hitting well for Potomac, but he's only 19 and it will be at least two more years, maybe three, before he's ready to take on major league pitching.

Adam Dunn can play first—that was my choice heading into Opening Day—but his defensive liabilities were exposed during the World Baseball Classic in March.

No, he needs to stay in the outfield.

The other surprise is not that he's still healthy (that's not a surprise, it's a miracle) but rather the way Nick Johnson is playing. As the cleanup hitter in 2005 and 2006, Johnson swung for power, hitting 23 homers in 2006. But this year, things are different.

Johnson has been placed in the number-two hole in the lineup and has been asked to get on base for Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, and Elijah Dukes. The change in his numbers are staggering.

He has 19 hits in 50 at-bats this year (.380) but just two of those hits are for extra bases, both doubles. In a full season (500 at-bats), Johnson would have 180 hits, 20 doubles and no home runs. Compare that to 2006 (46 doubles, 23 homers) and it's obvious that Johnson has changed his hitting style for the good of the team.

Instead of pulling the ball down the first base line, and hitting line drives into the right field gap, Johnson is poking soft line drives over the shortstop's head. He's also walking less, though his on-base percent of .446 is still amazing. Johnson has walked in 18% of his at-bats during his career, but just 10% in 2009.

That's what makes Johnson such a great talent. He is able to do what the team needs. He can hit for power, he can take a walk, and he can be a singles hitter.

And while his defense is not Gold Glove quality, it's very, very close.

It's sad that the Nationals are going to have to give up on him, but past history demands it. That said, Mike Rizzo gave up on Shawn Hill earlier this spring, and he's currently pitching very well for the San Diego Padres. In two starts and ten innings, Hill is 1-0 for San Diego with a 3.60 ERA, striking out six while walking just two.

So you never know.

The future for the Nationals is bright, though first base remains muddled. Perhaps if Nick remains healthy all year, the team might offer him an incentive-laden deal to return in 2010. All I know is that there is likely a hole at first for the next two or three years, and it would be great if Nick Johnson was healthy enough to fill it.

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