CLEARWATER, Fla. -- When the Nationals assembled for Spring Training a year ago, Davey Johnson told them, "If we play up to our potential, we'll win our division."
Skeptics snickered -- but when the season ended, Washington had dethroned perennial National League East-champion Philadelphia, winning a Major League-leading 98 games.
This spring? "The World Series or bust!" the 70-year-old skipper said. Those folks who doubted a team that never had a winning season in Washington would do what they did in 2012 are listening closely now.
In fact, the Nats are No. 1 in many preseason rankings, including MLB.com's Power Rankings.
But the second time around is not always as easy as it looks. Players often forget what it took to excel the year before. It's not really the given as it appears -- on paper at least.
There isn't a better manager in baseball than Johnson. His savvy is unmatched. How he handles players should be bottled and sold to every aspiring skipper. His .564 winning percentage is No. 1 among living managers with 10 or more years of experience.
Johnson is a certain Hall of Famer -- six division titles, a pennant, World Series title, two Manager of the Year awards and 2,283 wins during 16 years.
"I love the challenge where expectations are high," he said the other day as he sat in the dugout before a spring game. "You can't teach experience. A lot of the young guys did the things I knew they were capable of doing and we won the division. By going through what we did last year, we're in a better spot. Everybody to a man knows we can do better."
There was no pre-Spring Training speech about taking nothing for granted, remembering how difficult it was to turn the corner in 2012, etc.
"I'd be assaulting their intelligence if I'd tell them we can do better. They know that," Johnson said. "I've been around long enough that I can evaluate talent. Talent's one thing, but expressing your talent and producing is another.
"It's the manager's job to keep them from going off on tangents. We have to let them know who they are, what they do well and keep them in a good frame of mind."
I've often wondered how much a difference a manager truly makes during a grueling 162-game marathon. I wanted to hear it in Davey's words: "I'm a problem-solver. If guys play well, they win ballgames. My job is if any problems come up, I make sure we resolve them and move on. I don't really put a value on myself."
Hesitating a moment, Johnson added: "The only time you really manage is when you control matchups late in the game -- your relievers against their bench, my bench against their bullpen. That's when you manage. It helps when you have a good bench and a good bullpen. Then you're smart."
Johnson is a master at knowing just when to light a fire under an underperforming player, or maybe pat another on the back when he needs encouraging.
It's that rare combination that makes him so effective.
I've known Davey since he broke in with the Orioles in 1965. He's obviously mellowed. In casual conversations, he doesn't sound as -- pardon me -- head-strong. That, of course, was 47 years ago. Few players were as cocky, but that's what made him so good, so darn determined.
But it's that underlying trait that enables Johnson to communicate so well with his players. None of them were even born when he played his last game in 1978 or when he managed his first Minor League game the following spring.
Plus, he knows the ingredients of winning baseball better than anyone.
"I thought I knew a lot of stuff about baseball; I've been in it for over 30 years," said general manager Mike Rizzo. "Davey taught me about stuff that I'd never heard of before."
Rizzo, a player-development man at heart, has done a magnificent job improving the Nationals this offseason. He landed center fielder Denard Span in a trade with Minnesota, signed free-agent pitchers Dan Haren and Rafael Soriano, and in maybe his most crucial move, re-signed free-agent first baseman Adam LaRoche, who batted .271, hit 33 homers and drove in 100 runs for Washington last season.
"I think Rizzo's done an outstanding job keeping the balance of this club," said Johnson. "We did nothing at last year's Trading Deadline; we stood pat. I was a little amazed we had as much activity as we did this offseason. We'd been after Span for a couple of years."
The nightmare of closer Drew Storen blowing a 7-5 lead in the ninth inning of last October's decisive Division Series game against St. Louis is long gone. Davey merely calls it a learning experience.
This is Johnson's last year in the dugout; he'll return to the ivory tower as Rizzo's adviser in 2014. He's comfortable and at peace with himself to manage as a "lame duck." That his status might reduce his clubhouse clout or effectiveness is furthest from his mind.
"No. 1, I didn't think I was going to be here three years ago and didn't think I was going to be here last year or this year," he said. "I feel like when I leave here, this organization is going to be in great shape.
"I'm never one to look that far down the road. I know I will be involved with baseball at some level; I have been for the last 51 years professionally. I enjoy day-to-day. When I manage, it's today. That's as far as I go. I know what I'm doing today, so don't even talk to me about what's going on a week from now."
Expectations can often be overwhelming.
In 1986, Johnson's Mets had won 98 games the season before and Davey boldly predicted they'd dominate the NL. He had two young players then -- Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry -- who helped them win the World Series over Boston.
As a comparison, he has Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper and is saying, "World Series or bust!"
"We have the opportunity to have a special season, a very special season," he said, refusing to speak of any potentials negatives, be it about injuries, players having off-years, etc.
Or, in a tone as cocky as if it were decades ago, Johnson said: "I'm not telling these players anything that they don't believe themselves."
Johnson didn't say it, but they've made believers of just about everyone else in the NL.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less