WASHINGTON (AP) -- Lame-duck manager Davey Johnson did not need long to see that his ''World Series or Bust'' proclamation for the Washington Nationals might be on its way to being a bust.
The calendar still read April, long before Washington would eventually fall way short of expectations by finishing 86-76 to miss the playoffs a year after leading the majors with 98 wins, and Johnson already was fretting about some of his players ''trying to do too much.''
''Maybe from everybody picking us as a candidate to win our division,'' Johnson said at the time, ''everybody's trying to be a little better than they need to be.''
As the Nationals head into the offseason - and Johnson heads into retirement - earlier than many anticipated, there are plenty of key questions facing the club, most importantly: How to replace the skipper?
''As players and guys in this organization who expect to be here for the long haul, we've all put thought into it. But those decisions are out of our hands,'' reliever Tyler Clippard said.
''The only thing I ask of whoever makes the decisions on the managerial side of things is: Don't mess it up,'' Clippard added. ''We've got a good thing going on, a good thing here. Hopefully whoever comes in next year realizes that, and that the dynamic we've created over the past two seasons is a very important thing.''
General manager Mike Rizzo avoided talking about his managerial search during this season; Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr is thought to be a leading candidate.
Rizzo also will need to decide how to fill out the back of the rotation - righty Dan Haren is a free agent after going 10-14 with a 4.67 ERA and being one of the main problems during Washington's mediocre start, while earning $13 million - fix a bench group that contributed little, and determine if he has a batting order that can avoid the sort of slumps that sidetracked the club in 2013.
''Everybody who's seen us play, even the opposing teams, sees that we've got good young talent, a strong core of young players on this team,'' Rizzo said. ''We don't have to prove that to ourselves.''
The roster is anchored by No. 1 overall draft picks Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg (whose 2012 shutdown is still a topic of conversation in the nation's capital), middle-of-the-order stalwarts right fielder Jayson Werth and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, and front-line pitchers Jordan Zimmermann (who tied for the NL lead with 19 wins) and Gio Gonzalez.
But the Nationals only truly found their stride this season after they were essentially out of contention.
''It's just one of those things where it was too little, too late,'' first baseman Adam LaRoche said. ''We did get it going, but it was for a month and a half, and not six months.''
The Nationals never spent a day in first place after April 6. They were only 48-47 when the All-Star game rolled around, and then dropped six games in a row after the break. Following a loss on Aug. 7, they were six games below .500 and 15 1/2 games behind the division-leading Atlanta Braves.
Sure, Washington finished strongly, going 32-16 over the final 30 percent of the schedule. By then, the NL East title clearly was going to be Atlanta's. Even a wild-card berth was only faintly in play.
''We all hoped to be playing well past the regular season. For one reason or another, it just didn't happen,'' said Strasburg, who went 8-9 with a 3.00 ERA in only 183 innings during his first full season in the majors.
''It's a little different playing with a target on your back,'' the right-hander said. ''Every team's excited to play against you, and they're really going to bring their 'A' game.''
In the end, the Nationals finished 10 games behind the Braves, and four games out of the NL's last postseason spot.
Said Harper: ''We don't want that taste in our mouth anymore.''
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich
AP Sports Writers Bob Baum and John Marshall in Phoenix contributed.
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