By John Perrotto
When Davey Johnson said it was "World Series or bust" for the 2013 Washington Nationals, it didn't seem the ramblings of a crazy old man.
The 70-year-old Johnson had every reason to believe the Nationals could win it all in his final season as manager. Washington had won 98 regular-season games the year before -- the most in the major leagues -- and seemed sufficiently motivated after blowing a six-run lead and losing the decisive Game 5 to the St. Louis Cardinals in a National League Division Series.
However, the Nationals didn't even make it to the postseason this year. Only a strong late-season surge enabled them to finish 86-76. They were under .500 at late as Aug. 22.
Though the Nationals haven't played a game since Sept. 29, and Mike Rizzo has long been at work trying to strengthen his roster for 2014, the general manager still can't help but look back on the past season without wondering what went wrong.
"There's no sugarcoating it, we were frustrated with the year we had," Rizzo said earlier this week during a break at Major League Baseball's general managers meetings in Orlando, Fla. "I'm happy with the composition of the club and I still believe it's going to be a good club in the future that can win a lot of games."
"Maybe we had more flaws than I thought we did coming into the season. They were exposed, as this game will do to you when you have flaws. I feel we fixed them and will continue to work on fixing them and get back on the right side of things next season."
Like any team, the Nationals had some injuries and players who underperformed. Catcher Wilson Ramos sat out 58 games with a strained left hamstring, left fielder Bryce Harper missed 31 games with left knee bursitis and right fielder Jayson Werth sat out 28 games with a strained right hamstring while second baseman Danny Espinosa spent most of the season at Triple-A Syracuse after hitting .158/.193/.272 in 167 plate appearances.
Rizzo also made a decision in spring training that came back to bite him when he decided to carry long man Zach Duke as the Nationals' lone left-handed reliever. Duke was released after compiling a 8.71 ERA in 20 2/3 innings.
"I think we showed once we were healthy and more consistent what we can do," Rizzo said. "Our roster has to get deeper and we have to make sure we have capable replacements when we need them. You know us, we're not afraid to make a trade or sign or a free agent or do whatever we can to make our ballclub better."
While Rizzo has proven over the years that he will make a splash -- he traded for center fielder Denard Span and signed right-hander Dan Haren as a free agent last offseason -- he seems content to work around the margins this winter. Rizzo believes if the Nationals' core players perform to their capabilities in 2014 they will stand a good chance of getting back to the postseasoan.
"I'm not talking career years, just put up the normal numbers, play up to your expectations and we should have a lot of wins at the end of the year," Rizzo said.
The Nationals have two young players talented enough to be the NL MVP and Cy Young award winner next season -- or any season in the next decade-plus -- in Harper and right-hander Stephen Strasburg.
While it might not be completely fair, a case be made that neither lived up to expectations this year when Harper played his first full season in the major leagues and Strasburg had his first full season without any innings limits. Harper batted .274/.368/.486 with 20 home runs in 497 plate appearances while Strasburg went 8-9 with a 3.00 ERA in 30 starts.
Both players have been subjected to a great deal of attention since being the No. 1 picks in the amateur draft in consecutive years -- Strasburg in 2009 and Harper in 2010. Though Harper, at 21, is four years younger than Strasburg, he accepts the spotlight more readily. Some in the Nationals' organization privately worry Strasburg's shyness could keep him from reaching his full potential, though Rizzo believes he can overcome it.
"Stras is an introvert and Harp is an extrovert," Rizzo said. "In the confines of the dugout, team bus and dugout, Strasburg is just one of the guys. When he steps on the mound and the lights shine brighter, he's still a little uncomfortable but he's maturing. He's married now and they just had a baby in the offseason. Now he has something to worry about other than baseball and I think that could help him relax."
In listening to Rizzo, there is a sense he feels he may have already made his biggest move of the offseason by hiring Arizona Diamondbacks third base coach Matt Williams as Johnson's successor. At 47, Williams is a generation younger than Johnson and Rizzo believes his managerial style will resonate in the Nationals' clubhouse.
"He's a real competitor and there's an intensity to him," Rizzo said. "What he brings to us is excellent communication skills as they relate to ballplayers. He can relate to superstars because he played on All-Star teams, won Silver Sluggers and Gold Gloves, but he can also relate to the struggling player because he had chunks of his career where he didn't play so well."
Ironically, the Nationals ended last season with a 3-2 loss to Williams and the Diamondbacks at Chase Field in Phoenix.
"The players saw how he coaches from across field and the other dugout," Rizzo said. "If they do their research, they'll see how he conducted himself as a player. His personality will be the kind that will work well as a manager."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.