Before the 1986 season, third-year New York Mets' manager Davey Johnson said the team that won 90 and 98 games in consecutive second-place finishes in 1984 and '85 was not just going to win the division in 1986, but dominate it. Johnson's players believed. "'We didn't think we were competing for the division [championship],'" Mets' second baseman Wally Backman told MLB.com's Marty Noble in an article in 2006 celebrating the 20th anniversary of the '86 Mets' World Series win. "Right from the get-go, we thought we were winning it. You can't plan on being in the World Series. But I think we expected to be.'"
"In 84 and 85, we were close," Darryl Strawberry recounted in an ESPN chat, "and we came into camp in '86, and Davey Johnson told us from the first day of camp that we were going to dominate. We played that way from the first game of the season, and did dominate." As Johnson explained it, there was a reason he felt comfortable with the bold pronouncement. He really believed his team was ready to take the next step.
"It's all about progression," Johnson explained in a 2011 interview. "Early on we had little problems, and solved some of the problems in personnel. And then in '86 we were really a dominant team. We had dominant talent. And if the manager of the team doesn't realize they're dominant, then how can they believe we're dominant."
Toward the end of his "World Series or Bust!" final season on the bench in the nation's capital in 2013, which saw the Nationals fall short of their goal of returning to the postseason and finish 86-76 in second place in the NL East, 4.0 games out of the race for the second Wild Card, Johnson told reporters including the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore that he might not have said #WSOB last winter if he knew what the roster assembled for his last run was going to look like on opening day.
A reconfigured bullpen which lacked the second Tom Gorzelanny-ish lefty he thought he'd have; an unproductive bench that didn't reproduce 2012's stats; a lack of pitching depth. As Johnson explained to the WaPost's Mr. Kilgore, "You can’t have any cracks in the dam. Because the opponent has a way of attacking that." The Nats, as he leaves them, Johnson said, "... still have a few little things to fix, so the next guy coming in can say, ‘We’re going to win the World Series.’":
"There’s a few things. Starting pitching needs to be squared away. The bullpen is not nearly as efficient and effective as it was last year. And the bench has not been as productive. I still like the talent, but we lack some experience, as I talked about. I usually like to have my stacked hand before I make those predictions."
It wasn't just the bullpen or the bench, though. Some of the Nationals' starters underperformed expectations early as well. Johnson said in April that he thought everyone was pressing. "Maybe from everybody picking us as a candidate to win our division," he told reporters including MLB.com's Bill Ladson, "everybody's trying to be a little better than they need to be instead of just relaxing, going out there and doing what you're capable of doing. I don't really worry about it because I know the talent that's there. I know water seeks its level. We'll be fine. Just need to get going."
Things eventually came together. The Nationals made a run, but it ended up being too late. "We dug our own hole and we just couldn't dig out of it," Johnson told reporters late in the year, once the Nats had been eliminated from contention. "We didn't do the things we were capable of early," Johnson said. "We came back strong, but that's baseball. I love those guys. Great talent. Great makeup, we just didn't get it done."
Nats' GM Mike Rizzo told reporters, including CSNWashington.com's Mark Zuckerman, last week in Arizona that he didn't think the Nationals needed to do too much to tweak the roster going into the 2014 season, though, of course, he'd be open to upgrades:
"I think the team, as far as the core group, is set up pretty good. The core rotation and the core bullpen is set up pretty good. I think we’re going to look to obviously better ourselves in any way we can. But just looking at an overview, we’ll probably look to improve the bullpen, see if we can improve the bench a little bit. And any other way that we can improve the everyday lineup, if there’s any way we can do that, we’ll certainly look into that also."
Rizzo said he saw Adam LaRoche's rough season as anomaly from a player who has reliably produced what the Nationals expected from him before this season. Will LaRoche bounce back? Ryan Zimmerman came on strong late and looked like the Ryan Zimmerman everyone remembered late in the season. Is he back to being a middle of the order bat and hot corner vacuum? Anthony Rendon impressed in his first major league season and according to the GM is the starting second baseman going into the season. How will he adjust to the league's adjustments?
Can Ian Desmond, one of the Nats' core guys according to the general manager, put together another season like the last two? Denard Span came on late, is he the player he was in the last month-plus? Bryce Harper, when healthy, is a soon-to-turn 21-year-old who has impressed early in his career. Can he figure out lefties? Jayson Werth, in the last year and a half, has been every bit the player he was when he helped the Phillies make several postseason runs. Did the Nats just waste the last run of the 34-year-old outfielder's career?
Is Stephen Strasburg ready to take the next step? Can Jordan Zimmermann put together an entire season that lifts him into Cy Young contention? Can Ross Detwiler stay healthy? If Detwiler's not healthy do they have the depth to fill in the back end of the rotation or can they acquire the pitching they need? Rizzo said he thought the team had the depth already to fill out the fifth spot with a healthy Detwiler. Can Gio Gonzalez bring the walks and HRs back down to 2012 levels? Can the Nationals get one more season out of closer Rafael Soriano? Will anyone ever figure Tyler Clippard out? Is Drew Storen back? Can the Nats find the bullpen arms they think they need this winter?
How will the Nationals bounce back from a disappointing season?
Washington isn't likely to end up being chosen as everyone's preseason favorite this time around. Davey Johnson won't be hoping for something special in the last run of a storied career. The pressure of expectations will probably be off from everyone but the players themselves.
How will they react? How will the front office react to the disappointing season? Will they continue to tinker? Will they overreact and do something drastic?
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