The Washington Nationals sure like look a team headed in the right direction. Winners of 80 games in 2011 (out of 161, weirdly), they seem poised to challenge in the tough National League East. The Nationals bolstered their pitching staff by trading from their deep minor league talent pool for highly sought-after A’s hurler Gio Gonzalez.

After the Nationals signed former Phillies reliever Brad Lidge to a one-year deal yesterday, Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post got thinking about the relative quality of the Nationals pitching staff, wondering if the Nats arms ranks as the best in the big leagues? In terms of talent, they’re certainly up there. Too bad talent alone isn’t enough.

Setting aside the (seemingly) obvious fact that the Braves & Phillies each own better pitching staffs than the Nationals, there is another factor at play here. In terms of talent, the Nationals are right there with any team, a marked improvement from the team that started John Lannan on Opening Day just two seasons ago.

The sky-high ceiling of Stephen Strasburg inserts the Nats into nearly any “best staff” conversation. The bullpen 1-2 punch of Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard may not post the gaudy stats of other high-end relievers but they exploit the Nationals large park and strong defense to good effect.

The great equalizer, the one thing talent cannot eclipse, is health. Durability reduces the greatest pitchers in the game to highly paid spectators. Without health — you have nothing. The Nationals (and the Braves, for what it is worth) both lag behind the Phillies and baseball’s standard bearers, the Rays, when it comes to keeping their top 5 starters on the field.

The Rays actually lap the field in this respect. The Phillies pay top dollar for proven inning NOMMing vets like Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay while the Rays have an uncanny ability to identify and maintain durable starters. This, as they say, is the new inefficiency.

Until the Nationals can last an entire calender year without relying on Livan Hernandez to make two dozen starts, we should reserve judgement. Until Strasburg and Zimmerman can notch 180 innings apiece, let’s slow our roll a little.

Talent is all well and good. Identifying talent is a tough enough job on its own. Considering the significant investment the Nationals (and all teams) make in their starting pitching, doing whatever it takes to ensure those expensive players are on the field must be Job 1.

The Nationals certainly addressed this concern by adding Gio Gonzalez, a 200 inning stud for the best two seasons. Until they rest of the starting staff can demonstrate an ability to stay on the field, let’s put the “best pitching staff in baseball” stuff aside. Never a good idea to place the cart before the horse; especially if you aren’t sure the horse can survive the journey.