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Washington Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg heading into big 2019 campaign: Will his velocity return? Will he opt out of deal next winter?

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Stephen Strasburg dealt with injury issues again last season, but he’s working hard this winter, and he learned some lessons while working with diminished velocity late last summer...

Chicago Cubs v Washington Nationals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Shoulder inflammation and then a nerve issue in his right shoulder kept Stephen Strasburg on the Disabled List (outside of one start) between June 8th and August 22nd last summer, and when he finally returned to the Washington Nationals’ rotation down the stretch he put together a solid string of starts in which he did, however, experience a noticeable drop in velocity.

“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.”

In eight starts down the stretch after his second DL stint of the 2018 campaign, Strasburg went (4-0) with the Nationals 7-1 in his outings, in which he up a 3.43 ERA with 17 walks, 55 Ks, and a .241/.323/.400 line against in 44 23 innings pitched, wrapping the season up in a six-inning, 103-pitch outing against the Colorado Rockies on the road in Coors Field.

“I think it’s good for his mind set going into the winter,” manager Davey Martinez said after Strasburg’s final start of the season.

“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 told reporters, as quoted by MASN’s Mark Zuckerman, after facing the Rockies.

“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.”

Asked about his drop in velocity once he returned, Strasburg again acknowledged it wasn’t what he was used to working with on the mound.

“It hasn’t quite been what I’m accustomed to,” he 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.”

Though the velocity wasn’t there late in the season, both Strasburg’s manager and pitching coach, Derek Lilliquist, said this winter that they thought he learned some valuable lessons.

“After he came back his velocity was down a little bit,” Lilliquist explained, “but we were trying to get him to a spot where he’s not being over-aggressive to get out of his mechanics, trying to find that comfortable fine line of best stuff, best command as opposed to just best stuff with no command, so we kind of pulled the reins back to find that click and I think he found that click without his best stuff and he was getting outs without his best stuff, so I think that was very positive and — coming back into Spring Training — I think his velocity is going to be right where it needs to be.”

Even if it’s not quite what it once was, Martinez added, as the 2009 No. 1 overall pick said, he proved to himself that his stuff still played.

“Two things,” Martinez said. “He did dip. And I think rest and the way — I’ve watched him work out. He stayed here in Washington, he’s been working out, and he’s been doing unbelievable, so I think the velo will be back. The other thing that helped him, because he didn’t have his velo, he actually pitched, and he really felt like, ‘I can get guys out without having to throw 97 MPH,’ which was kind of nice, so in his mind, he feels really good about that.”

Strasburg averaged 94.8 mph with his fastball overall in 2018, down from 96.2, 95.6, and 95.7 in the previous three seasons, and opposing hitters put up a .280 AVG on four-seam fastballs he threw, up from .266, .241, and .256 in 2015, ‘16, and ‘17, respectively.

Now 30 years old, Strasburg, who’ll turn 31 in July, is heading into a big season, considering he can opt out of his 7-year/$175M extension with the Nationals after the 2019 campaign, in which he’s set to earn $35M (though $30M is deferred, apparently, to be paid, “... in seven $10M installments each July 1 [between] 2024-30,” according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts’ breakdown of the deal, which also includes a $10M signing bonus to be paid out on July 1, 2019).

Will a strong, healthy season in ‘19 prompt Strasburg to test the free agent market after he opted not to back in 2016-17?

If not, he has another opportunity to opt out after the 2020 campaign as well.

Will the velocity return in 2019 with an offseason of workouts and more time to recover from the shoulder issues which limited him this past summer?

Will Strasburg be able to remain in the rotation for a full season’s worth of starts, teaming up with Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin to form a formidable top three in D.C.?