Stephen Strasburg went into the 2018 campaign determined to stay healthy and contribute to the Washington Nationals’ rotation.
It did not go as planned for the 2009 No. 1 overall pick, who started the year talking about tweaking things that he thought would allow him to stay on the mound.
“Injuries are a part of baseball,” Strasburg told reporters last December.
“I’m not really going to stress about anything, but throwing-wise, I think what I’ve noticed is I’ve been able to just get what I needed out of a bullpen and not really tinker with things too much and not throwing as many pitches in-between [starts].”
The 30-year-old right-hander ended up making fewer starts than he has in any season since he returned from Tommy John surgery in 2012, missing time with two stints on the Disabled List, one for right shoulder inflammation, and after one start back in the rotation, another DL stint for a cervical nerve impingement.
Strasburg returned and put together an eight-start unbeaten streak down the stretch, as the Nationals fell out of contention in the NL East, putting up respectable numbers (3.43 ERA, 17 walks, 55 Ks, and a .241/.323/.400 line against in 44 2⁄3 innings pitched), and finishing strong in spite of the fact that he didn’t have the velocity he had before the injuries.
“It’s kind of at the point where it’s going to take probably an offseason to get the stuff back,” Strasburg told reporters, as quoted by MLB.com’s Jamal Collier in mid-September.
“Instead of trying to reach back for it and not make pitches, you just have to pitch where you’re comfortable at and not really look at the [radar] gun too much.”
Strasburg wrapped up the season with a six-inning start on the road in Coors Field in which he held the Colorado Rockies to two runs on five hits (both home runs).
His manager, Davey Martinez, said after that final outing that it was a positive way for things to end.
“I think it’s good for his mind set going into the winter,” Martinez explained.
“I know he’s going to work diligently to get healthy, get stronger, and come back in 2019 and be ready to go.”
“You always want to finish the season strong,” Strasburg said, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman.
“I don’t think my work is done, by any means. I’m going to assess this season. I think I’ve done a lot of that already. But I’ll definitely want to go into the offseason and hit the ground running. By no means am I satisfied with how it went this year, and I’m sure a lot of other guys feel the same.”
He even took positives from what he was able to do with decreased velocity.
“It hasn’t quite been what I’m accustomed to,” Strasburg told MLB.com.
“But at the same time, I think it shows that when I get older, and the stuff does tend to go down, that it still plays. It’s just a little bit of confirmation, and I think I’ve got more in the tank for sure. I’ve got to get it back this offseason.”
The 2019 campaign figures to be a big one for Strasburg, who seems unlikely to, but can opt out of the 7-year/$175M extension he signed with the Nationals in May of 2016 after each of the next two seasons.
Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo talked to reporters after the extension was announced about the thinking behind including the opt-outs in the deal.
“It was part of the negotiation and this is the first one I’ve ever done,” Rizzo said at the time.
“It seems to be the ‘en vogue’ kind of ingredient to get a long-term deal with really good players. So we agreed to it and I think the contract is structured as such that it’s to the benefit of both parties.”
If he can stay healthy and put up big numbers this season, will Strasburg really consider opting out of the deal and testing the market next winter, or after the 2020 campaign?
The deal with the Nationals, (which includes deferments that will pay him through 2030, if Cot’s Baseball’s byzantine breakdown of the contract is correct), looks right now like it’s a better deal than anything he’s going to get offered at this point, especially now, coming off a rough season, injury-wise?
Would a big season in ‘19 change that, or do you expect Strasburg to stay in Washington for the duration of his deal?
He did, after all, forego the opportunity to test the free agent market because, as he said at the time, the organization had treated him and his family well and he felt like the Nationals were, “...going to be winning and succeeding for many years to come and I definitely want to be a part of that.”