In the wake of the Nationals 5-2 loss to the Phillies on Saturday night, the Nats’ in-dugout brain trust made it clear: forget the struggles of 2010 — this is now all about next year. That isn’t exactly a shock. After informing Nats’ fans several weeks ago that the team’s veterans deserved to play in spite of the need to audition younger players, Jim Riggleman deftly reversed field, saying that Adam Kennedy and Pudge Rodriguez would share time with Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos. Now Steve McCatty has gotten into the act. Don’t worry, be happy was the message from McCatty in the wake of Jordan Zimmermann’s implosion on the mound on Saturday — this is really about next year. “After going through the surgery and being out a year like he has, your command is just not going to be there,” McCatty said in today’s Washington Post print edition. “. . . Hitting his spots is something that will come the more he pitches.”

The message is clear enough: just wait’ll next year. With 14 games left in the season, that Nationals are doing what other MLB non-contenders are doing: they’re auditioning players for next season, giving (or withholding) votes of confidence for their on-field staffs and shuffling future talent to off-season leagues and training camps. Oh . . . and they’re peddling “things’ll be better soon” snake oil to their fans. Nats fans are inclined to listen: Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos look a lot like the future, Drew Storen & Crew have solidified the once-awful bullpen and youngsters Michael Morse and Roger Bernadina look like they’ve finally arrived. It’s all good man, really it is. Except that the starting staff (the backbone of any baseball contender) remains in the middle of a season-long (and cataclysmic) meltdown. Jordan Zimmermann’s Saturday outing was just in a series of recent examples: the “second best hope” of the Nats (after Stephen Strasburg) couldn’t throw low and in-the-zone fastballs, couldn’t throw strikes and couldn’t get out of the 3rd. It’s not like we’re picking on Zimmermann; we’re not. We’re picking on the everthing’ll-be-okay-once-the-kids-arrive baseball-by-press release philosophy of developing pitching that the Nats’ front office has found itself in. Mike Rizzo and Stan Kasten are right: it takes patience and time to develop a pitching staff. And Nats’ fans have been plenty patient. But there’s a limit.

This off-season provides yet another opportunity for the Nationals to go out and get an arm that matters. No contending major league team is without one — whether it’s Halliday in Philadelphia, Cliff Lee in Texas or C.C. Sabathia in New York; each of them one-time free agents, each of them leading their team into the post-season. So while the 2011 free agent pitching class is small (Cliff Lee is the single premier available hurler), the Nats have to do something besides watch their kids head to or come back from the disabled list. Then too, wouldn’t it be a lot better for the Nationals to watch their kids develop at Harrisburg or Syracuse — than on the mound in Philadelphia.