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.
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.