(Alex Brandon / AP)

The hopeful rhetoric emanating from the Nationals clubhouse may sound similar to that following the 2012 season, but there’s certainly truth to it. Despite a 2013 campaign dubbed “World Series or bust” in which the Nationals fell four games short of reaching the playoffs, the organization remains in prime position to fulfill the expectations their talent merits. Over the final two months of the season, the Nationals were the hottest team in baseball and showed that this core group can indeed compete at a high level.

“The Nationals will be a scary team next year,” said starter Dan Haren, one of two impending free agents on the roster. “Nobody wanted to play us this year. If we got in, we’d be the team to beat. The talent is there for next year and this organization is in a good place.”

The 86-76 season, a 12-win regression from last season, still stung.

“As a whole, I’d say it was disappointing and frustrating,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “But it wasn’t a total loss. We learned a lot about ourselves as a team. We learned a lot about each other. I think we have a better sense of ourselves now than we did at the beginning of the season. The success of last year kind of clouded our ability to achieve a little bit this year.”

Of the players on the Nationals’ 40-man roster, only Haren and infielder Chad Tracy are not under team control for the 2014 season. The majority of the team’s key players are under team control through at least the 2015 season. The Nationals control Denard Span for ’14 and hold a team option for ’15. Adam LaRoche, who struggled with his weight and hitting this season, is in the same situation, but his ’15 option is a mutual one. After the ’15 season, the first wave of key players — Tyler Clippard, Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann — are eligible for free agency. The core of the team that went 184-140 over the past two seasons will return next year.

“I know they’re in a good place going forward,” said now-departed manager Davey Johnson. “I feel good about it.”

There will still be changes this winter. General Manager Mike Rizzo has the biggest decision to make, a choice that affects not only next season but the future of the organization: who will replace Johnson as manager? Matt Williams? Randy Knorr? Trent Jewett? Jay Bell? Bo Porter? Cal Ripken, Jr? The move is likely not to be the first one made by Rizzo this offseason but it will be the most important.

“That’s probably job No. 1, because a manager is going to have input on what we do with the roster construction and that type of thing,” Rizzo said. “But 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.”

Some Nationals players were already stumping for Knorr, believing that little change is best with the team that has developed together for the past several seasons.

“Where our organization stands right now, we’re gonna be in a good spot going into next year from a player standpoint,” Clippard said. “The clubhouse is in a good spot. The only thing I ask of whoever makes the decisions on the managerial side of things is: Don’t mess it up. We’ve got a good thing going on. We’ve got a good thing here. Hopefully whoever comes in here next year realizes that and the dynamic of the chemistry that we’ve built over the last two seasons is a very important thing. I think somebody who is more familiar with the dynamic of the clubhouse is going to be more beneficial to the organization as a whole. So whoever it is, as long as they understand that, I think we’ll be fine.”

“If you’re a guy that wants to manage, the best baseball job on the planet earth is the Washington Nationals,” said MLB Network analyst John Hart, a former Cleveland Indians general manager who guided them to six division titles from 1991 to 2001. “It’s the plum job.”

As Rizzo suggested, the Nationals’ bullpen and bench need the most work. The starting rotation — with the exception of Ross Detwiler’s health and the fifth spot — is set. The starting eight position players — with the exception of the open competition for second base next spring between Anthony Rendon, Steve Lombardozzi and Danny Espinosa — are set, too. The holes on the Nationals roster are important ones to fill, but they are not a team needing major repair.

“I would think they are going to learn something from this season,” said John Hart, a current MLB Network analyst and former Cleveland Indians general manager who guided them to six division titles. “Quite frankly, I don’t think this is a club that is really in need of a big overhaul. This is a club that is going to bring back a tremendous core, not only with the rotation but with the everyday crew. I think they’re in a good position. … Maybe there’s some tinkering. They come in with a new mindset. They come in as a club with something to prove. I think that’s a good thing. You come into spring training with a little more attention to detail. They’re going to have a change of manager and there’s going to be a different voice there.”

As a whole, the Nationals hit .207 (44 for 213), good for 19th in the majors, in pinch-hitting situations. Lombardozzi was the team’s most productive pinch hitter and versatile bench player, and Scott Hairston, who improved later in the season, is under control for next season. The Nationals, however, will need left-handed hitters off the bench. Could Corey Brown fill the void left by Roger Bernadina, the left-handed-hitting fourth outfielder? Could the Nationals pursue likely free agent David DeJesus, who was with them for four days this summer? Wouldn’t the Nationals be better served by adding proven veteran pinch hitters as younger players such as Tyler Moore struggled in that role?

Rizzo signed closer Rafael Soriano last winter to “strengthen a strength” and instead the Nationals bullpen regressed. As a whole, the bullpen posted a 3.56 ERA, 17th in the majors, and allowed a MLB-high 38 percent of inherited runners to score. The Nationals could still choose to tinker with the returning core of the bullpen — perhaps trading expensive relievers, an inherently volatile position, at their highest value such as Clippard — but the edges of the relief corps are certainly weak.

The original configuration of the bullpen that featured only one left-hander backfired and later fill-ins, Ian Krol and Fernando Abad, faded after strong starts. Left-handed batters hit .255 off the Nationals’ left-handed relievers, the 10th worst mark in the majors. Xavier Cedeno impressed in his limited action late in the season and could be an option in the bullpen next season. While Drew Storen improved after returning from the minors, he (4.52 ERA) and Ryan Mattheus (6.37 ERA) had miserable years.

Will the Nationals explore the free agent market to round out the bullpen, in particular the left-handed side? Will Ross Ohlendorf return as a long reliever who could also serve as depth for the starting rotation?

Tanner Roark (Alex Brandon/AP) Tanner Roark (Alex Brandon/AP)

Another area of uncertainty remains: the back of the starting rotation. Detwiler missed four months of the season, most of them because of a bad back. The Nationals hope he returns to form, so there is only one spot to fill. Rizzo suggested that he would be comfortable filling the final spot with young starters such as Tanner Roark or Taylor Jordan. If the Nationals choose to add a starter through free agency, they could protect themselves from injury by preserving their depth in the minors. Or, with now more developed starting pitching in the minor leagues, the Nationals could pull off a package deal for a starter on another team.

“With the depth that we have in our young starting pitching, we could certainly fill from within,” Rizzo said. “I don’t think it’s a necessity to go outside the organization, either in the free agent market or in the trade market. But we’re certainly not going to back away from looking at the free agent and the trade market to improve the club.”

As the Nationals reached the end of this season, Werth came to believe 2012’s joyride had been too easy, that the rollicking, devoid-of-hurdles success prevented any growth. Once the Nationals began their season-ending streak, winning 14 of their last 17 series, Werth saw that maturation.

“I think we learned more and grew more in that time frame than at any point last year or any other time this year,” Werth said. “Whenever that was, that was a defining in not just our season, but more like, guys’ careers. That’s when you learn how to win. I think that will be as valuable as anything else that we’ve done in the last two years.”

(Toni L. Sandys/TWP) (Toni L. Sandys/TWP)

Werth noticed a change with the Nationals over the past month and a half. The obvious answer is the Nationals started hitting – Span and Ryan Zimmerman became two of the hottest players in the league September. Werth thought there was something more. He could not place what, exactly, happened. But he saw the Nationals’ young players become better equipped to handle expectation, to recover from losses, to win.

“It’s not something you can quantify,” Werth said. “It’s not something you can sit around and talk about. It’s what makes good teams good and what bad teams are missing. Once we had that mindset, this team really turned into one of the best teams in baseball – which is where when we started this year and what we lost. It shows that going forward, it worked out. Now we’ve kind of been through some ups and downs. We lost it and got it back. That’ll play well as we go forward.”

A breakdown of the contract statuses of the Nationals roster:

Arbitration eligible players: Ross Detwiler, Ian Desmond, Tyler Clippard, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Ohlendorf, Wilson Ramos, Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen.

Free agents: Dan Haren and Chad Tracy.

— Adam Kilgore contributed.