When we look at the Nats you should see a division champ. I imagine that when all the predictions come out they will be a heavy favorite to win the NL East and a "here and there" pick to get to / win the World Series*. If they don't make it though, it probably won't be because a dozen little things didn't go right. It'll likely be because one or two big things went terribly wrong. This is true of every team - a couple injuries can derail a season. But there are places the Nats are more vulnerable where an injury can't just be attributed to tough luck. Places where the Nats looked bad at the tail end of 2016 that could carry over.
Jayson Werth crashes and burns.
Jayson Werth is staring down the barrel of 38 (May 20th). That's old. He has pulled rabbits out of his hat before but last year marked his first back to back years of below average offense. Yes, it was just barely below but still it seems to say that the time of being able to bounce back and have a good offensive year has finally passed him by. In agreement with this idea is the fact the season wore him down and his September was terrible (.211 / .297 / .267) Without his offense, Werth becomes what? His fielding has been bad for years. A savvy yet slow baserunner? A 'leader in the clubhouse'? Those are fine things, but not fine things to be trotting out daily. Could the Nats bench Werth? Could the Nats bench Werth and Zimm at the same time?
Shawn Kelley gets hurt
I've said it before and I'll say it again. The last time we saw this guy was walking off the mound in a pivotal playoff game because he couldn't throw the ball anymore. That's very very very not good. He seems fine now but he's a 2 TJ arm. Losing Kelley wouldn't throw the bullpen into chaos. The signing of Blanton assured a depth to cover it. But losing Kelley would kill that depth. Alone this is a survivable issue, but we are talking potentially two big things going wrong. Tack this onto a starting pitching failure and we start to have an overtaxed pen with no depth and a definitive problem
Stephen Strasburg gets hurt
What could be that starting pitching issue? Well since Max's finger issues appear to be over (and he was pitching through it anyway) we'll leave that aside for now. Instead we'll focus on Strasburg who I'll remind you pitched once, for 2 1/3 innings, after August 17th last year. He hurt his arm in a way that's about as close to "Uh oh need another Tommy John" as you can get without actually needing another Tommy John. He's rested and we haven't seen any issues but given that he's missed about 10 starts in each of the past two years, don't you have to assume that he will at least do the same in 2017?
Joe Ross gets hurt
Less impactful because of his role, but this still matters. A little more hopeful because of the way he ended 2016, but still a question mark. The Nats collection of minor league arms has done little to suggest there is a major league capable guy just waiting for his chance. Ross going down may not in itself be a huge issue, but coupled with a Kelley injury you can see the problem snowball. Ross did not pitch from July 2nd through mid September and he never was allowed past the 4th in the three times he started. In the playoffs he failed to get out of the third and put the Nats in a hole they ultimately couldn't overcome. Was he really starter healthy at the end of the year? Doesn't look like it. He still hasn't pitched over roughly 150 innings yet in his career so relying on him for 180+ seems dicey.
Gio Gonzalez stinks
2016 was both a weird year and a completely expected year for Gio. He probably pitched better than his ERA indicated. At the same time he had wildly good months (April, August) and wildly bad ones (May, June, September). The end result though was a year where he pitched slightly worse than he did the year before which follows the trend we kind of assumed he would follow. For our purposes here we are focused on that September month. In that month Gio gave up 34 H, walked 7, and hit two guys in only 23IP. That's almost 2 baserunners per inning. If Gio continues a moderate decline he'll be a bad, but necessary, innings eater. If he pitches like September? Well you can't start him anymore. Last year Gio was bouyed by a strong April that gave him cover when he threw 10+ starts of garbage in Spring. If he starts with those garbage starts, what happens then?
None of these issues alone are unique in baseball. They can happen to any team at any time. Yet these are all issues that we hit pause on when the season ended. They are in some measure "existing" rather than past. None of these issues alone would necessarily derail the Nats. Yet we have to consider the chance that a couple or more will continue on and in combination could matter.
Oh how were the Nats in September? When all this was going down? Still good. 90 wins good.** But 90 wins good isn't winning the East
*Tough because both the Cubs and Dodgers are also very good. All are fair choices to come out of the NL. Anything else is someone trying to be contrary for attention.
**They were still good! So don't worry? Not exactly. Offensively the Nats did take a dive as Werth joined Zimm and Espy in terribleness. But Murhpy and Turner crushed, and a collection of "don't bet on this for 2017"s (Difo, Severino, Goodwin, Lobaton) all over acheived. That at least kept the Nats head over water. Pitching wise AJ Cole was predictably bad filling in but that was about it. Eventually Lopez filled in admirably and there were almost a dozen relievers with ERA under 3.38. That means for the time being the pitching didn't suffer. I'd buy that happening for any single month but for an extended time, no. I think you'd see some predictable downs.