Wait ’til next year

Back in March, before the season started, I was worried about the Nats. Their spring training was unimpressive; their bullpen wasn’t doing much for me and their offense looked weaker than in 2014. There were some injury issues as well. I predicted they could disappoint and that the Mets might give them some trouble (I also thought Miami would be the most improved team in baseball, so let’s not start giving me Faith Healer status here).

But I never, ever thought we would be in this hell.

The bullpen turned out even worse than I feared, particularly the middle relief. Matt Williams (who on a more objective basis has gotten something of a bad rap) made his biggest mistakes at the worst possible times. And the team started turning on each other, with Matt “What second half?” Scherzer chewing out Williams on the mound and and Bryce Harper and the toxic Jonathan Papelbaum staging the Dumbest Fight Ever.

The Nats were officially eliminated from playoff contention last weekend — really an inevitable formality after the Mets beat them like a rented mule in DC earlier this month. Mike Rizzo’s multi-year mind-fuck of Drew Storen came to a predictable conclusion. The number of times this team came up small when it mattered the most in August and September is just stunning. And now they look like an utter mess, with lots of people likely to depart via free agency or trade. This sort of thing has a 2016 collapse written all over it.

Or does it, really?

Think about next year: The rotation still will be topped by Scherzer and an apparently rejuvenated Stephen Strasburg. Gio Gonzalez, Joe Ross and Tanner Roark make a hell of a back end behind those two. Harper is the National League’s best player and still has upside! Anthony Rendon is likely to have a much, much more productive year. Trea Turner looks ready to replace Ian Desmond — especially the 2015 version of Ian Desmond. Yunel Escobar can’t be expected to reproduce his 2015 stats but still is a very, very fine infielder. Michael A. Taylor could become a genuine star. There’s some bench depth.

Some questions: What version of Ryan Zimmerman will we get? Will Jayson Werth need to be let down easy? Who’s going to manage this crew? And most of all, WTF is up with that bullpen?

I have to think Williams is gone. I’ll never understand why the Series-ready Nats hired a rookie manager last year, but that’s moot. Fair or not, he has become the face of the franchise’s failure. Time to get a new face, preferably a veteran with playoff experience.

This team also needs to seriously consider whether the aging and oft-injured Werth is a major league starter any more. It needs to be honest with itself about Zimmerman’s now-chronic health issues. And for chrissakes, it needs a bullpen. But none of those issues is insurmountable.

Finally, the Nats will go into 2016 with few expectations. Narrative-driven hack sportswriters already are proclaiming this team Done for next year. That’s a low-stress to place to be and it might be just what this team needs.

Going in cold, would you predict a bad 2016 for a club that has this much talent? Actually, wouldn’t you like to have a team with this much talent?

There were reasons to be suspicious the Nats would live up to their 2015 hype. There are just as many reasons to believe they won’t live down to next year’s prescribed path.

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