Depending on how you look at Nick Johnson, he was baggage brought from Montreal, or potential that didn’t pan out in Washington.
Nick Johnson was a former top prospect of the New York Yankees. He was the key player in the deal when the Montreal Expos acquired him in the trade which sent pitcher Javier Vazquez to The Big Apple.
When the Expos packed up and moved to Washington, Johnson was going to be the first baseman of the future. Sure, there would be a rocky year or two as the team transitioned, though as years progressed Nick Johnson was going to compete for batting titles, and lead the Nationals to multiple playoff appearances.
What could have been had Johnson just stayed healthy? What could have been for him? What could have been for the Washington Nationals franchise?
I’ll admit, I was a closet Nick Johnson fan. A few years earlier at Double-A Norwich, Johnson had an OPS of 1.073. His 123 walks paired with 87 runs batted in, made him a desirable asset. As he was promoted, his skill-set was translating to the big league level, he was just having trouble staying healthy.
With anticipation I watched as he hit .289 with 15 home runs and 74 runs batted in, on a Washington team which finished last in the division. With a record of 81-81, the team surprised many and was poised for better results the following year.
While the team regressed in 2006, Johnson did not. The sweet left-handed swing produced an OPS of .948 on career highs in home runs (22), doubles (46), walks (110), runs scored (100), and runs batted in (77). He even stole ten bases.
This is what New York Yankee fans had waited to see. This is what Washington Nationals fans had to look forward to. Then the collision with Austin Kearns occurred. Up until then, Johnson had played in 147 games. A broken leg would end his year and keep him out all of 2007.
He was back in 2008, though was not the same ballplayer. His body had been ravaged from injuries over the years and his swing was slightly slowed. In early May, while swinging at a pitch, Johnson injured a wrist tendon sheath. He was hitting only .220 when his season was ended at just 38 games.
Even though his hitting came back in 2009 (.295 average through 98 games), his power was nonexistent (6 home runs in 353 at-bats). Johnson was dealt that year to the Florida Marlins for a minor league pitcher named Aaron Thompson, who never appeared in a big league game with the Nationals.
In the three years he actually took the field in Washington, the Nationals finished last in the division each time. There was a lot of promise surrounding Nick Johnson. Promise which didn’t materialize into team success.
He’ll always be a player I look back at and wonder what could have been, had he stayed healthy.