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Thom Loverro: Nationals' priorities this winter are dealing with Johnson, LaRoche

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Photo - Manager Davey Johnson led the Nationals to 98 wins and the NL East title in 2012. (AP photo)
Manager Davey Johnson led the Nationals to 98 wins and the NL East title in 2012. (AP photo)
Sports,MLB,Nationals,Thom Loverro

So when do pitchers and catchers report?

The Washington Nationals walked down a path of success no one expected this season -- save for their manager, Davey Johnson, who told everyone in spring training they would be good and should win the National League East.

It likely won't be their only walk down that path. The Nationals are loaded with young talent that will learn from the devastating Game 5 loss to the Cardinals in the National League Division Series. They arrived at very good a year early but should be very good for years to come.

How good may depend on some questions the franchise faces this winter.

The biggest is whether Johnson will return as manager. Though he made a number of questionable moves in that 9-7 debacle loss to St. Louis, he managed a young, inexperienced team to 98 wins and the NL East division crown.

General manager Mike Rizzo has said as long as he is running the baseball operation, Johnson always will have a place in the organization. But he was initially hired as a consultant and took over as manager when Jim Riggleman quit in the middle of the 2011 season.

Johnson's deal going forward will have to be negotiated, and for the first time the owners of this team -- the Lerner family -- are going to have to pay a manager real major league money.

Dusty Baker, who earned $3.5 million a year to manage the Reds, just received a two-year contract extension. If you add up the money the Lerners have paid managers before this season, it would be about a million short of that figure. So if Johnson is going to manage the Nationals next year and beyond, it's going to cost more than these owners have ever paid a manager.

Another key decision is what to do at first base with the possible departure of Adam LaRoche, who is coming off a career year and figures to cash in on it with a big contract. He is an important player for this team with his great defense at first and his left-handed power bat in a right-handed hitting lineup. But he may have Red Sox written all over him.

If LaRoche leaves, does rookie Tyler Moore fill that first base job? They love Moore -- they drafted him three times -- but he's a right-handed bat in a lineup that will need a lefty in the middle somewhere.

Will the Nationals seek a prototype leadoff hitter and center fielder like Michael Bourn -- a Scott Boras client -- or keep their outfield intact? The thought here is they don't need to add more strikeouts to a lineup that has plenty of them already.

These are different questions than this franchise has dealt with in the past. These are the questions that a playoff team faces -- good questions.

Examiner columnist Thom Loverro is the co-host of "The Sports Fix" from noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on ESPN980 and espn980.com. Contact him at tloverro@washingtonexaminer.com.

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