Johnson impressed with Strasburg
Senior advisor managed Mets rookie phenom Gooden in '84
VIERA, Fla. -- Davey Johnson, the Nationals' senior advisor to general manager Mike Rizzo, was sitting in a golf cart observing right-hander Stephen Strasburg, who had his second bullpen session of the spring on Tuesday.
Strasburg, 21, threw over 35 pitches in about nine minutes. Johnson noticed that Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, looked more relaxed than he was during his first bullpen session on Sunday.
Johnson observed that Strasburg was trying too hard in his first session, but was still throwing strikes. In his latest session, Strasburg's pitches were a little up in the strike zone.
"[After the first session], I told him, 'Just relax, take it easy. It's a long spring,' That's not in his repertoire," Johnson said. "I thought he was going at it a little too hard. He wants to show people who he is, what he has. He doesn't understand there are six weeks down here. There is plenty of time."
Johnson knows all too well about how Strasburg throws on the mound. Johnson managed the 2008 Olympic baseball team which claimed the bronze medal in Beijing. One of those players he managed in the Olympics was Strasburg, who went 1-1 with a 1.67 ERA for Team USA.
Like many in the Nationals organization, Johnson agrees there's no need to rush Strasburg to the big leagues. Johnson believes he needs to learn more about the professional lifestyle before being promoted to the big leagues. Strasburg's only experience in professional baseball was in the Arizona Fall League last offseason.
"He had several starts in the Fall League. Those are like Minor league starts," Johnson said. "Wherever he goes, it would be nice to let him get used to the professional lifestyle. I think he could handle just about any level. It wouldn't hurt him. In those situations, you don't have to let him throw seven innings, nine innings.
"You can control him better on how much you pitch him, so it would be less stress on his first year out. You would be basically controlling his innings more. That's really sound reasoning. It's better to protect that arm and slowly build professional innings, so he doesn't throw 180 or 200 innings. I think you could control that better in the Minor Leagues as opposed to the Majors. It's hard to hook a guy when he has a no-hitter after five in the Majors.
"The main thing is, if you develop properly, that's the way you win. Developing Stephen Strasburg is no different."
Johnson knows what it's like to manage a highly touted pitching prospect in the big leagues. As a manager of the Mets, he managed Dwight Gooden in 1984. Thanks to Johnson, Gooden was able to make his Major League debut at the age of 19. Gooden had never pitched above Class A.
However, there was reluctance to promote Gooden at that time, because three years earlier, the Mets called up right-hander Tim Leary, a top prospect back then, and he ended up hurting his shoulder during his Major League debut against the Cubs.
But Gooden was different, according to Johnson. He had enough Minor League experience, pitching in 49 games before he was put on the Opening Day roster in 1984. Johnson promised then general manager Frank Cashen that he would take care of Gooden, who went 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA and won the National League Rookie of the Year Award.
"Dwight had command [by the time he was] 17 with two pitches," Johnson said. "I wanted Dwight in the big leagues because I knew he was ready. He got better and had a good Spring Training, and they let me have him. The rest is history."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.