Charlie Fliegel: Staying healthy and on field is key to Nats' season

There are plenty of things that really help swing a season one way or the other. For the 2016 Nationals, the answer is painfully obvious. Let's look at a few possibilities:

The bullpen - it stunk last year, except maybe not as much as you remember. The Nats ranked 10th in the majors in bullpen ERA. Mismanaged and maybe too much in its own head (a.k.a. mismanaged), but not necessarily what made 2015 bad. I have more faith in their free agent acquisitions, young talent and a dnew pitching coach than some, but even without that, they have enough ability to not be the single point of failure for 2016.

The defense - this team will be able to hit some, they should be able to pitch, but can they field? Poor defense has helped sink the Nats plenty of times. But they've also won 90-plus games more than once with pretty suspect defense. It won't come down to their defense, especially considering it probably beats that of their biggest division rival.

Any one player - Bryce Harper was the MVP and Max Scherzer was fifth in Cy Young voting last season, and that certainly didn't get them where they needed to be. It's easy to look at someone like Stephen Strasburg or even Trea Turner and think, "If they can just put it all together, that'll be it." But unless Harper has a 100-homer season in him, that ain't it.

No, it's more simple than all of that. It's health. Plain old staying on the field.

If they can keep the players who have a decent amount of injury history - Ryan Zimmerman, Strasburg and Jayson Werth, and for that matter Harper and Anthony Rendon - on the field, this team is going to be very good.

This isn't shocking news - and, yeah, it's essential for every team - but it's especially crucial for the Nats. Because they have more guys with health questions than most teams - and they have so much talent tied up in those guys, maybe five of their six potentially best players - it's what really matters.

Remember Zimmerman's awful 2015? After he came back healthy, he hit like an All-Star in 156 plate appearances, with an OPS of over 1.000. Healthy, he's a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter. He did that the last two months of last season, so let's not dismiss it as ancient history.

Baseball Prospectus projects Werth to hit .254/.344/.410, and I just don't buy it. This is worse than what he did after he finally started playing well in mid-August last year. He had OBPs of .387, .398 and .394 in 2012, 2013 and 2014. A healthy Werth might not hit 25 home runs anymore, but he's still better than those projections.

Rendon, too, will certainly hit if he's healthy. Harper might not match 2015, but he's still spectacular - and he just might be what he was last season because maybe that's just Bryce now.

Throw in a solid-hitting Daniel Murphy, and decent production from Ben Revere and Michael A. Taylor. Add Danny Espinosa, who, as a shortstop with equivalent plate appearances, would have had higher value than the other starting shortstops in the division. All of that before you bring up Turner.

As for the starters, Strasburg managed an ERA under 2.00 after coming back from the disabled list last season, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of roughly a billion to one. A healthy Strasburg plus Scherzer gives the Nats one of the best one-two punches in baseball, with solid Nos. 3 and 4 pitchers in Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross, who looks like a really good No. 3 starter at worst. Questions remain with Tanner Roark at the fifth spot, but what team doesn't have those questions at No. 5, and his upside is incredible considering what we've seen out of him.

Every team has to worry about injuries, but the Nats have so many key contributors with health questions. One of them out of the lineup is no big deal, but three of them out for a significant time could be killer, like in 2015. And losing a starter is expected, but two at once is just scary.

But a healthy Nats team - one where Zimmerman and Werth play 130-plus games at mostly full health, where Rendon and Harper play 150-plus games, and where Strasburg makes close to 30 starts - is going to be tough to beat. Health of guys who haven't always been healthy is the Nats' key, and if they stay on the field, they will win the division.

Charlie Fliegel blogs about the Nationals for The Nationals Review. Follow him Twitter: @nationalsreview. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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