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A Much Cheaper Version Of Manny

Nick Johnson is 30 now, the age where, typically, the learning curve plateaus, where players are more often inclined to maintain than leap forward. Well, Johnson is trying to leap. That's my dead tree story, available for no-trees-killed consumption right here.

In watching Johnson and Eckstein work out yesterday, I learned a few things about the Nats new hitting coach. First of all, he has a photographic memory. (Good for hitting coaches, deadly for clubhouse card games.) Second, he's precise; everything about him says as much. His hair is clipped just so, everything squared off. He's always hustling. On the practice field, he sets up the cage, drags the balls out onto the mound. No second is wasted. When I spotted him yesterday heading out to work with Johnson, I asked him, "How long ya going today?"

Eckstein: "Til we get what we're looking for."

Another classic moment...

After Willie Harris cracked a ball solid into the gap, just as Eckstein had instructed, the coach asked Harris, "What does that feel like?" Eckstein was hoping for a diagnostic answer, something along the lines of, "Like my bat head was coming straight through the zone."

Harris just bellowed, "I feel like I'm Manny Ramirez!"

By Chico Harlan  |  February 15, 2009; 6:45 AM ET
 
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Comments

It would be awesome to have Nick at the top of his game and healthy. Dare to dream?

Posted by: AlexL925 | February 15, 2009 7:46 AM | Report abuse

SO much better than Lenny Harris. Would love to have Nick, but he's likely trade bait once he can prove he's back.

Posted by: tmp2234 | February 15, 2009 8:04 AM | Report abuse

Is Eckstein really this good? If so, what in world was management doing keeping Lenny Harris around at the parent club level?

If Nick Johnson is healthy AND Eckstein can improve his hitting then trading him would be a humongous mistake.

Add the Eckstein effect to the list of 10 Spring Training Questions submitted yesterday.

Posted by: driley | February 15, 2009 8:18 AM | Report abuse

Posting at 6:45 a.m. on a Sunday. Chico, you da man! I guess your girlfriend wasn't in Viera for Valentine's Day...

Posted by: UnionStation | February 15, 2009 8:26 AM | Report abuse

Great piece, Chico. Tightly written, and it really flowed. You started at one point, came full circle, and let us see how far we'd come. One story, telling two tales, working in a seamless mesh.

I've got one question: How'd it feel?

I remember when Nick Johnson was an untouchable hitting prospect, with the Yankees organization. He has an incomparable batting eye, but his numbers in the years since he first came up have always belied his enormous potential. Sounds like Eckstein might be the guy yo unlock that potential.

Personally, I always thought that maybe Nicky needed to be in better condition. Maybe, there will be an added benefit. With more hits and fewer walks, he'll get/stay lean.

Posted by: fischy | February 15, 2009 8:43 AM | Report abuse

... ah, spring training; there's absolutely no better feeling in the world (and I say this after Valentine's Day), and in spite of the six feet of snow still piled high on my front lawn, I can feel the sun beaming on my back when I read Willie Harris' 'anything's possible' assertion he's the new Manny.

... then I read Chico's great piece on the new NJ, and my heart, while wanting to soar, dropped a peg or two. Call me a cynic; call me a spoil-sport; hell, call me anything you like, but I gotta say that the feeling I was left with, was one of uncertainty (over Nick's assuredness. Why now, after 2000 AB's?) and scepticism (What makes Rick E. so sure when no one else ever saw anything wrong thus far?). When Nick says, "I've been doing it wrong my whole life," I step back with eyebrows raised and wonder if this is a real epiphany or merely another expression of wishful thinking.

... please don't get me wrong; while it's true I've been one of those who anticipates Nick's next injury more than his next successful season, just like everyone else I would glory in finally seeing him receive his post-season cheque, let alone a solid gold WS ring, while wearing a curly W.

... so on this weak February Sunday morning, my heart can't convince my head that there's a turn-around in the offing. Still I look forward to a pleasant June evening when I can say "I stand corrected".

Posted by: natscanreduxit | February 15, 2009 9:15 AM | Report abuse

natscan, I'll cop to a similar skepticism. But after thinking about matters for a second, I'm reminded of something else: after a few years of watching Johnson face down pitchers, and do it very well, I'm always a touch surprised when I go look at his career numbers. They're very very good, but I have this nagging feeling that they could be even better.

Anyway, if there's one Nat I think I can trust to understand his own swing and make the right call on whether to tinker with it, it would be Slick. He seems to understand hitting like no one else on this team. In the end, this'll be just one more thing to watch this spring, see what happens. Like you, I'm a bit skeptical, but would be delighted to be proven wrong.

Posted by: Scooter_ | February 15, 2009 9:28 AM | Report abuse

Wow... remember last year when nobody could figure out how an entire lineup could slump as badly as it did at one time? How improbable it was for those slumps to linger as long as they did? How guys never seemed to hit their way out of them no matter how good a single day or AB they had?

How much different does this feel? Can you see the same thing happening this year with what you read of Eck in that article? Maybe it's the "spring" talking but I just can't wait to see how this lineup performs this year under Eck full time.

Posted by: RicketyCricket | February 15, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

I'm very hopeful to see what Eckstein (The Randy St. Claire of hitting coaches) can do with young guys like Zimmerman, Dukes, Milledge & Flores. All four of those guys are do for big breakout seasons and if Eckstein can have the same level of success that his predecessor had failure we should have 6 guys in the all star game

Posted by: estuartj | February 15, 2009 10:01 AM | Report abuse

Ah, the first blush of optimism that comes with Spring Training. While it sounds like Eckstein has a far more diciplined approach to hitting than his predecessor, I'll not yet annoint him with StClaire status. He has one convert in camp (Langerhans), and seems to have Slick & Harris coming over as well. Let's see how the team is hitting as they approach the All-star break, before we start drinking the kool-aid.

Posted by: BinM | February 15, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Eckstein has a pattern of success to point to from the minor leagues, but whether he's legit or not, could you imagine this kind of intellectual certainty from Lenny Harris?

"I've taken great pride in the fact that when I open my mouth, I truly believe in it. I truly 100 percent believe that that is the area this hitter needs to go into. I won't open my mouth just to open my mouth. I will do my homework, and I will do everything necessary on my end to make sure I've considered everything that I could possibly consider before I lead a guy -- and their career -- in a certain direction. So that's what I shared with Nick."

Posted by: estuartj | February 15, 2009 10:28 AM | Report abuse

I just love all the positive spin comments concerning Eck and his pupils. But I'll only sip the kool-aid for now. I want to see what happens when the arms are flinging real stuff when the bell rings. That will tell the story as the NL East is chocked full of veteran fireballers and junkthrowers than can set you back. I am hopeful that the direction Eck is taking is the right one, but I'm not looking for the NL batting champion to come from this group just yet. I'll be paying attention.

Posted by: cokedispatch | February 15, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

I'm just sipping too right now, but it'll certainly be something to watch down there. I don't know what I'd do if we learned how to hit. That could actually lead to scoring some runs this year. Or making a run at a 500 season. My God, then the team could even pull in a few more viewers.

Sorry - took too big a swaller.

Posted by: Bazz | February 15, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

I think that the keystone for Eckstein will be Zimmerman. If he can keep Zimmerman from having his usual horrendous first two months of the season then great things will happen. First, if Zimmerman keeps his third spot in the batting order he will be driving in a lot more runs for the team than he did last year. Second, a Zimmerman who contributes in the first two months will set up a lot of big innings for the combination of Johnson and Dunn who will follow him. Third, the FoF will have a huge burden lifted from his shoulders.

This spring is already better because we do not have Flop, two injured catchers and a clueless hitting instructor. One sour note is that we will be subjected to Dibble's blathering for the whole season. (I hate to be negative but his time on ESPN radio was just a dismal experience for this one listener.)

Posted by: driley | February 15, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse

Great piece, Chico. I'm optimistic about what Eckstein can do with our batters after reading this piece and last year's reports of his success with hitters in the minors.

Also, welcome back, 506 (a few threads back).

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | February 15, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Hey guys, I was wondering how you all feel about some of the following topics so I created a quick survey. I would love to see some of your perspectives. If you were the manager/general manager of the Nats, how would you address these issues? (Remember, this is what YOU would do, not what you think will happen)

1. Best option with Johnson, Dunn, Willingham, Kearns?

First:
Left:
Trade (can be more than one):
Keep (can be more than one:
(Other option):

2. Best rotation: (John Lannan, Daniel Cabrera, Collin Balester, Jordan Zimmerman, Scott Olsen, Odalis Perez, Shawn Hill, Ross Detwiler, Jason Bergmann, Shairon Martis, other)

1.
2.
3.
4.
5.

3. Best option for 2nd base:

a. Ronnie Belliard
b. Anderson Hernandez
c. Kory Casto
c. Orlando Hudson (lose 2nd round pick)
d. Make trade
e. Other (post idea)

4. Best line-up:
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.

Posted by: dcsportsfan13 | February 15, 2009 11:27 AM | Report abuse

I've been thinking more and more about the potential line-up with NJ and AD in it and how creative Manny will be willinig to be in trying out new players at new slots to maximize offense. First thing is would Zim be better at 5 than 3, can Milledge lead-off. Where do you put Dukes to take best advantage of his combination of power, speed and OBP. Here is what I came up with. I don't think this will be the line-up on opening day, but maybe when the team goes on it's June tear to rival the majic June from '05 (27-7, what a 6 weeks that was...);

1. Milledge (CF)
2. Dukes (RF)
3. Johnson (1B)
4. Dunn (LF)
5. Zimmerman (3B)
6. Flores (CA)
7. Guzman (SS)
8. Hernandez (2B)
9. Lannan/Hill/Olsen/Balester/Zimmermann (SP)

Posted by: estuartj | February 15, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

Maybe some of the sport bars can come out with a "Nats Kool Aid" drink this spring. I'm thinking a variant of the Bahama Mama. It's red, tastes a bit more like Hawaiian Punch than Kool Aid, but when made right you don't taste the alcohol. Any other nominees?

dc sportfan - add Willie to the 2d base options, and maybe AG. Drop Casto.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | February 15, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Chico - in the inventory of story lines, add one about 2d base. Is it an open competition for the best performer or is it conceded, either to AH to play his way out of it or a vet (RB) to build up trade possibilities? Is this a position they might upgrade through trade or a later signing?

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | February 15, 2009 11:52 AM | Report abuse

@jca:

Don't know that I'd want "NatsTown" associated with a drink that ends in "kool-aid" - if you get my drift...

Posted by: BinM | February 15, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

jca- Forgot about Willie. I guess he could just go under "other." I think top lineup would be:

1. Milledge (RF)
2. Guzman (SS)
3. Zimmerman (3B)
4. Dunn (LF)
5. Johnson (1B)
6. Dukes (CF)
7. Belliard (2B)
8. Flores (C)
9. Lannan/Olsen/Balester/Perez/Zimmermann

Posted by: dcsportsfan13 | February 15, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

This is the time of the year for the kool-aid (though I'm with BinM on the Johnstown reference, let's just not go there).

this is the time for irrational exuberance, go with it, indulge in it. We have 5.5 months for realism, this is the time for fantasy!

Posted by: estuartj | February 15, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

@estuartj:

I like the idea of Lastings in the #1 spot; he could become Soriano-lite, if Grissom works with him on his base-running/stealing. I'd personally put a 'ball-in-play' hitter like Guzman behind him, dropping Dukes to #6 & Flores to #7. I really like the idea of trying RZimm in the #5 hole, particularly behind Dunn.

Posted by: BinM | February 15, 2009 12:12 PM | Report abuse


"Let's see how the team is hitting as they approach the All-star break, before we start drinking the kool-aid."

Posted by: BinM | February 15, 2009 10:24 AM

************************
Why? kool aid tastes better when it's fresh. We aint hurting nobody if we gulp now.

Posted by: NatsNut | February 15, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

I think you waste a lot of Dukes OBP potential by putting him so low in the line-up. If he remains healthy and out of trouble he is possibly the best all around player on the squad. Remember this is not a opening day line-up, so I could see starting the season with him lower, but I see him playing himself into a spot much higher in the line-up.

Posted by: estuartj | February 15, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

@dc13:

That's a purely offense-minded lineup (lotsa smash, not much grab), but it's your opinion, so that's ok.

Posted by: BinM | February 15, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

@NN:

I'm just not ready to proclaim Eckstein as a hitting savant until we see the team on the field for a couple of months. Call me a spoilsport, a nay-sayer, or maybe a realist.

Posted by: BinM | February 15, 2009 12:36 PM | Report abuse

yea, but the bar is low. won't take much to see improvement and that's enough to get excited about.

Posted by: NatsNut | February 15, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

@estuartj:

You raise a valid point regarding ED, and I hope you're right. I was thinking more of an OD - early season lineup, and seeing where the 3-6 slots would wear the opposing pitchers down with # of pitches taken & gap-or-better power. Maybe I'm too 'old-school' in that regard.

Posted by: BinM | February 15, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

I like the idea of a healthy Nick, because it benefits us with either a trade or a genuine top tier player. I do however, as a fan, resent his 'I don't want to be a sub' attitude. No one, not even Nick, believes that if he's healthy he won't play. If he is swinging the bat and running Dunn goes to the OF. So why make that statement? We have been very patient with Nick, and the fans have always been behind him but when I read comments like that right after the article on Shawn Hill I frankly thing he should prove he is a regular before demanding anything.

Posted by: soundbloke | February 15, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

@NN:

Don't get me wrong; I'm totally geeked about the team & the start of ST. I'm just cautious about the Eckstein bandwagon (just leave room for me to jump aboard when the team goes back-to-back-to-back against somebody from the NL East, ok?).

Posted by: BinM | February 15, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Reality check, observations, and random thoughts:

1b = Adam Dunn, period. He can't play the outfield at a MAJOR league level. Nick gets traded a week before they break camp and come north. Da'Meat is the backup. WMP will also work out here, if he's smart as it may be his only chance to get on the field. Otherwise, he's DFA'd or traded away.

RF = Elijah Dukes. At his age, he needs to play damn near everyday. Austin Kearns has not met expectations since his arrival. He will be traded for prospects because he will not accept a back-up role.

CF = Justin Maxwell. Knowing that this spring is probably his last best chance is one helluva motivator. A natural center fielder with great range, an adequate arm, along with youth and enthusiasm. Lots more upside potential.

LF = Lastings Milledge. An easy transition after struggling in center. Offensive production should see a major improvemnet as he won't be concerned with a recent misplay in center.

Willingham will be platooned in the OF as will Willie "SuperMan" Harris in the INF. Belliard will be the odd man out. DFA or traded for a very low level prospect.

Zimmerman will LOSE if he goes to arbitration and will be extremely pissed. This will prompt him to go on a tear for the entire season. He'll opt for arbitration next year and WIN instead of signing a long term deal here as he won't want to stay. Would you?

If I see Langerhans even once at the park in a Nats uniform, I'll puke all over my favorite bar in section 210!

This team can, but won't, lose 100+ again but I doubt very seriously that they can win 80. They should at least be competitive and maintain fan support that waned badly last season.

Shawn Hill is unfortunately, the second coming of JP without the diva attitude. Cabrera is just as likely to maim someone as he is to throw a 15+ K complete game. Balester will be fun to watch. He will lead the team in wins with 14.

It will be more fun this year than last and some progress will be shown but Washington is not a patient place.

This years season ticket base = 15,000 or less.

"FRANK 20"

Posted by: tradervic1313 | February 15, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Okay, fair enough. if you let us say I told you so when it comes. ;)

Posted by: NatsNut | February 15, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Soundbloke, the key thing to remember about Nick Johnson's quotes about being a back-up were in response to questions from Bill (IDIOT!) Ladsen. Ladsen obviously hadn't spoken with the club about what position Dunn would play and I doubt I would have been able to give a more positive quote if I was blindsided by someone like Ladsen telling me I had been demoted without hearing from the club first.

Posted by: estuartj | February 15, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

One fun thing to look at is comps for Milledge. I'm not sure I buy the list on Baseball-Reference, but Vic Wertz looks better than Tommy Agee and Gary Geiger to my eye (the top 3). While it does not make the list, Milledge is tracking close too, maybe better than, Johnny Damon. I think he can handle the leadoff slot.

As for #2, I'm more inclined to split the lefties, Nick and Dunn, so Nick is either #2 or #6 if Dunn is #4. If Dunn is #5, then Johnson can be #3. However, I don't see a lefty/switch lead-off hitter on the roster unless Guz hits over .310 again.

My stated preference is Millz - Nick - FotF - Dunn - Dukes - Guz - Flores - 2d, if Nick is still with the team. I could flip Dukes and Zimmerman but the main thing is Nick should be #2 on this team if he is in the line up.

I don't see the "we need a contact hitter at #2" argument as pointing to Guz over Nick on this. Nick's contact % is nearly the same as Guz (~85% v. ~87%), but he works the count and gets on so much better, even compared to Guz's peak year. Nick can move a guy up either by a walk or a hit (or productive out), while Guz only does it by a hit (or productive out). If we have a deep enough order to bat Nick #2 or #3, we have to.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | February 15, 2009 1:05 PM | Report abuse

Granted we still have to see results on the field but this stuff from and about Eck just plain SOUNDS better at this point. No more "duh... i just let em do what they're gonna do. i don't want to get in their way".

Posted by: RicketyCricket | February 15, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

estuartj

Ah, yes. Good point...

Posted by: soundbloke | February 15, 2009 1:12 PM | Report abuse

I love playing line-ups, and I'm all for out of the box thinking, but a couple things I do not see happening - period - are Nick Johnson batting 2nd or Willie Harris as an everyday player.

I'd also like a rundown of the benefits of a l/r/l/r line-up vs a rr/ll/rr line-up. I'm sadly ignorant of the effects a mixture has on pitchers...

Posted by: estuartj | February 15, 2009 1:54 PM | Report abuse

jca, i think you're focusing way too much on the LRLR thing. it's ok to have a lefty following a lefty sometimes. i don't think you should force an uncomfortable lineup to accommodate a LRLR situation. you don't think the yankees are going to go out of their way to split up arod and tex, do you?

it's worth looking at when you have multiple options for your 3-4-5, but the nats should put their best bats in the best positions and not worry so much about the L/R thing unless they're running 3 or more LH or RH bats in a row.

Posted by: sec231 | February 15, 2009 1:54 PM | Report abuse

BIG question now is...what will the rotation be. Whatever it is, the starters really do need to go deeper into the game on a regular basis. If they can do that, the bullpen may be able to hide the weaknesses they contain. I see that as the biggest mystery upcoming.

Posted by: cokedispatch | February 15, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse

OK, e & 231 - I will not obsess about it. Nick did have a heck of a year as a #2 as a NYY, so it's not like it's unheard of. And the NYY are pretty good at mixing r & l with switch hitters, but it is sort of natural. I just don't think it is a stretch with this line up. 3/5 will be 2 righties - Zimmerman and Dukes - one before and one after Dunn. I like Milledge leading off because I see him capable of hitting there now and in the long run. If I have a choice of giving more ABs to Nick or Guz, I'll give them to Nick, which is why I want him #2. But more than likely, Guz will be in one of the top 2 slots, and Lastings or Nick will hit behind ED.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | February 15, 2009 2:53 PM | Report abuse

new post

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | February 15, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

@coked:

Regarding the rotation, let's compare 2008 to what's in camp for 2009.
2008: 1)Od.Perez, 2)Redding, 3)Lannan, 4)Bergmann, & 5)Balester, with Hill, MChico, & others in supporting roles.
2009: Olsen, Lannan, Cabrera, & Balester, with Hill, Bergmann, Od.Perez, JZimm & others.
In my mind, Olsen is a step-up from Odalis at #1, Lannan could fall prey at #2 to the 'sophomore slump', but I think he's better than that. Cabrera looks to be the equal to Redding at face value - let's see what St. Claire can do with him. Balester at #4 is another 'sophomore' - six weeks in Viera will prove whether or not he's going to come north. The #5 spot will resolve itself in Viera as well between Odalis, Hill, Bergmann or a "dark-horse" candidate.
All in all, I think the starting staff is looking much better than it did last year.

Posted by: BinM | February 15, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

No disrespect to Lenny, but some are better teachers and motivators than others. I believe in mind over matter and hitting is contageous. I also believe a good sound hitting approach is the difference between good hitters and great hitters.

If Eckstein can just get these guys BELIEVING in themselves, you will see an improvement just in that alone.

The greatest hitters (including Tiger Woods) have the greatest mental mindsets. They envision before they step up.

POSITIVE MENTAL ATTITUDE. Batting is the only place where a 33% success rate gets you into the Hall of Fame.

Posted by: GoingGoingGone | February 15, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

THE MOST IMPORTANT COMPONENT OF SPRING TRAINING? GOOD HEALTH!!! NO MUSCLE PULLS/STRAINS,HAMSTRING INJURIES, NO CONTUSIONS,NO PULLED QUADS OR CALVES, NO SPRAINS THE TRAINING STAFF WILL BE CRITICAL KEEP THESE GUYS LOOSE MAKE SURE NICK JOHNSON STRETCH'S BEFORE WORKOUT'S,THAT ALSO GOES FOR E.DUKE'S. GOOD LUCK NATS!

Posted by: dargregmag | February 15, 2009 8:46 PM | Report abuse

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