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12/05/11 9:59 PM EST

Johnson feels Nats are on verge of contending

Manager wants bench bat, thinks Harper can play in Majors now

DALLAS -- How optimistic is manager Davey Johnson when it comes to the Nationals? He feels they are two players away from being "a heck of a team."

Johnson has reason to feel good about the Nationals these days. They finished the 2011 season in third place, the highest ranking since the team moved to the DC area after the 2004 season.

Johnson's biggest concern about the Nationals is putting together his bench. He would prefer veterans, but may have to deal with young players. Johnson has already talked to free-agent Mark DeRosa about joining the team. Johnson managed DeRosa in the World Baseball Classic in 2009. The Nationals showed interest in DeRosa after it was learned that Chris Marrero would be lost until the All-Star Break because of a torn left hamstring.

"And I know he has injured his left wrist or a tendon in his left wrist," Johnson said about DeRosa here on Monday on the first day of the Winter Meetings. "But I had him in the World Baseball Classic -- really quality guy. I really like him. If he's healthy, he fits the role about as good as you can get."

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Johnson is also looking for a left-handed bat off the bench. The Nationals have talked about bringing Willie Harris back to the team. Harris spent three years with the Nationals before signing with the Mets last year. As a member of the Nationals, Harris was a popular figure in the clubhouse and had a great relationship with general manager Mike Rizzo and the Lerner family.

Aside from the bench, Johnson would like Rizzo to keep an open mind when it comes to outfielder Bryce Harper, who is only 19 years old. Johnson believes Harper can be the Opening Day right fielder if the team decides to move Jayson Werth to center field.

Playing someone as young as Harper is nothing new to Johnson. Back in 1984, when he was the manager of the Mets, Johnson brought a 19-year old rookie named Dwight Gooden to the big leagues. Gooden turned out to be the ace of the staff, winning the National League Rookie of the Year, then winning the Cy Young award the following season.

"But I think that the main thing is ... could he handle it mentally? And I think in his mind, he's already figuring to be starting on the club, if you ask him," Johnson said about Harper. "And I haven't talked to him, but I know that he's done everything in his whole life to succeed at a higher level and compete with the best.

"It's kind of like I told Rizzo. I said, 'I had to fight for a young pitcher [Gooden], who was 19 years old in New York, and just keep an open mind and let's see what he does in the spring. And then evaluate whether he makes the club or not.' And after many conversations, I finally got [then-Mets GM Frank Cashen] to agree to that. And the rest is history.

"But I think [Harper is] pretty mature. I don't look at him age-wise as I probably should."

Johnson is in his first full season as manager of the Nationals. He became the skipper last June after Jim Riggleman resigned because of a contract dispute.

Johnson felt he was the perfect fit for the job because he is able to work well with young players.

"I felt like I'm pretty good with handling young players and helping them get their feet on the ground," Johnson said. "So I thought I was a good pick last year. And you know the story, I was consulted a month or so, or two months after. My recommendation was to continue, and they took it."

Johnson looks to take the Nationals to even greater heights in 2012.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.