PHOENIX — The overwhelming sense of disappointment was evident throughout the Nationals' clubhouse at Chase Field late Sunday afternoon, once their season was officially over, their 2013 record forever written in stone as 86-76.
Everyone in that clubhouse expected to win more than 86 games this year. A second-straight NL East title, followed by a deep October run, was the realistic goal. A Wild Card berth was the fallback option. Anything less was unsatisfactory.
And yet, there was another strong emotion mixed in with that overriding sense of disappointment: Hope. Hope that next year will be better. Hope that an MLB-best 32-16 record over the final seven weeks bodes well for the future. And, above all else, hope that the men who make this franchise's most-important decisions will choose to keep the roster and coaching staff intact, not blow the whole operation up after one underachieving season.
"We have the players," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We have everything we need right here. We have the manager, we have the staff. To be honest, I don't know if there's somebody else better out there who could bring more out of us than what this staff did. We played tremendous the last two months of the season. It was unfortunate that we didn't get off to a good start, but I think we proved what we have is good enough."
Others around the baseball world may scoff and may suggest the Nationals remain far too confident an organization after failing to live up to the hype in 2013. This team had baseball's 12th-best record this season and finished 4 games out of a playoff berth, 10 games back in its own division.
How could the Nationals not believe change is necessary this winter? Well, their performance over the final seven weeks may have convinced them to stick with the status quo.
"I don't think we played hot at the end of the season," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "I think we played the way we were supposed to play the whole season toward the end of the season."
Indeed, the club that won 32 of its final 48 games looked very much like a legitimate contender. A powerful, balanced lineup finally produced top-to-bottom, averaging 5 runs per game. A pitching staff that hit some speed bumps along the way turned dominant late, posting a 3.24 ERA over that 48-game stretch. And a defensive group that surprisingly was among baseball's worst early on, surrendering 38 unearned runs before the All-Star break, improved by leaps and bounds and allowed only 14 to cross the plate during the second half of the season.
It came far too late to catapult the Nationals into the playoffs, but not too late to remind everyone just how good this team could be.
"We did get it going, but that was for a month and a half," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "The good thing is, it's something to build off of and come into next year fine."
"There's a lot of teams that played the way we played, with the expectations we had, that could have just folded it in and cashed it in for the season," Rizzo said. "But these guys pulled themselves up by the bootstraps when I think our low-water mark was 6 games under .500 and played extremely well from there. To me, that shows the character and mettle of a champion. Although we didn't play like a champion early enough in the season, I think that we finished with a flourish, and it's going to set us up well going into the winter and into spring training."
Thus, Rizzo's offseason shopping list doesn't appear to be very long. He will try to bolster his bullpen and bench, two strengths in 2012 that became problem areas in 2013. He could pursue a veteran No. 5 starter, though he suggested he prefers the candidates he already has in-house.
Rizzo's first decision — and, everyone agrees, most important decision — will be selecting a manager to replace the departing Davey Johnson. He hasn't tipped his hand one bit so far, but if he has paid any attention to his own employees, he knows the preferred choice: Randy Knorr.
The 44-year-old former catcher has positioned himself as well as possible to succeed Johnson, having spent the last nine seasons either managing at every level of the Nationals' farm system or serving on the big-league staff, the last two as Johnson's bench coach.
"He's been a tremendous influence on my career," said Desmond, who first played for Knorr as a 19-year-old at low-Class A Savannah in 2005. "For me to say anybody else but Randy would be a lie. That's who I want to see as the manager of this ballclub."
Whether Knorr or somebody else — Matt Williams? Ron Gardenhire? — gets the job, the Nationals' fifth full-time manager in eight years will be inheriting a roster loaded with talent.
Bryce Harper will be 21 and hoping to ascend to the top of the sport. Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez will be back for another season as one of the best young pitching trios in baseball. Jayson Werth will be coming off a career year. Desmond will return as one of the best all-around shortstops in the game. Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos and Denard Span will hope to parlay their strong second halves into full-season performances.
The Nationals may have been brought down a peg in 2013, but they'll enter 2014 firmly believing they can re-ascend to the top of the mountain and fulfill the lofty expectations they could not meet this year.
"The only thing I ask of whoever makes the decisions on the managerial side of things is: Don't mess it up," reliever Tyler Clippard said. "We've got a good thing going on. We've got a good thing here."