- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Without meaning to, former Nationals manager Davey Johnson came up with a nifty catchphrase for the 2013 season when he said, “World Series or bust.”

He didn’t mean it quite like it got interpreted.

Johnson knew he was retiring before the season started and, if he was going to manage in the World Series again, this was his final chance. But those four words still became the mantra for the Nats’ season and, as everyone knows by now, it was a bust.

Sure, Washington won 86 games for its second-highest victory total since relocating from Montreal before the 2005 season. Sure, the Nats played like one of the best teams in baseball over the final third of the season. But when the playoffs started, the Nationals were not one of the participants and that doesn’t qualify the season as a success under the measuring stick the Nats created the year before when they had the best regular-season record in the game.

New Nats manager Matt Williams hasn’t been as accommodating as Johnson when it comes to providing words to hang a season on, so let’s help him out and do it for him. Let’s call 2014 the Year of the Mulligan for the Nats.


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Make the playoffs? All is forgiven.

Miss them again? Then it might be time to ask a few more questions and wonder if there’s a deeper problem here. What that might be is anybody’s guess, but we’re going to go out on a limb here and say the questions won’t even need to be asked.

This is a playoff team, just as it was last year, but this year the Nats won’t miss.

First, it helps that the Nats play in a division that has become one of the weakest in the game. Sure, the Mets or the Marlins or the Phillies might surprise a lot of people and be a lot better than expected. How likely is that?

If the division winner isn’t the Nats or the Braves, it will qualify as a major shock.

Second, and most important, the Nats still have a lot of young talent that is continuing to develop and grow. As many as a half a dozen key players — Bryce Harper, Wilson Ramos, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Anthony Rendon and even Ian Desmond — are still on the rise. If they continue their progression (and stay healthy) and the team’s more veteran presences perform anywhere close to their career norms, this team could be scary good.

While not discounting what will be major contributions from many others, big years from three players could make this quite a memorable year.

Ramos: He showed at the end of last season what he could do when healthy, starting 23 straight games and producing at the plate. The Nats need 130 starts out of him this season.

Strasburg: Maybe he hasn’t been quite as good as advertised when the Nats took him with the No. 1 overall pick in 2009. That’s because it is almost impossible to be that good. Since returning from his 2010 Tommy John surgery, he’s been plenty good. He was an All-Star in 2012 and was, for the most part, even better last year despite it not being reflected in the numbers. His maturation as a pitcher has been fun to watch.

This is the year he needs to take another step. He needs to consistently dominate. He needs to be able to look the Dodgers’ brilliant Clayton Kershaw in the eye and say, “Don’t clear room for another Cy Young just yet.” No disrespect to Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister, but Strasburg is on top of this rotation for a reason.

Desmond: Most agree that the best shortstop in the game is Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki. When the discussion turns to next best, Desmond has to be in the conversation. He’s still only 28 and he’s become a standout defender. He had 34 errors in 2010 and has only 35 the past two years combined. He’s become a force at the plate, too, with 45 home runs and 153 RBI the past two seasons. If he matches what he’s done in recent years, Desmond is a vital cog. Something says there’s even more there and 2014 will be a breakout year for a guy already regarded as among the best at his position.

And let’s not forget Williams, who will be managing for the first time outside the Arizona Fall League. Unlike former Nats coach Bo Porter when he took over the Astros last season, Williams has been handed the keys to a Cadillac rather than a Yugo. It’s a pretty good situation for a rookie manager and it will be interesting to see how he handles things. He’s much more intense than Johnson, but he’s also more than smart enough to know he’s got a quality machine on his hands.

He’ll make it hum and end up as National League Manager of the Year. He may not be good for catchphrases, but he’ll prove to be plenty good for this playoff-bound team.

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