- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 20, 2016

VIERA, Fla. — Toiling at his locker with Jonathan Papelbon’s country music blaring at him from a nearby stereo, Stephen Strasburg picked up a bat. He began to pass the time before the Washington Nationals’ first workout of the spring with a couple wrist flicks. It could well be his final first day with the Nationals.

He’s 27 years old now, the hype of his debut a marker of lunacy six years in the past. Strasburg’s age influenced him in two ways this offseason. First, he altered his winter workouts a bit, increasing the intensity when he worked, but also providing an extra day of recovery time. “I’m not 21 anymore,” he said.

Second, it means his one-year, $10.4 million contract will conclude at the end of the season. Strasburg’s agent, Scott Boras, does not do early long-term contracts or discounts, which means Strasburg will hit the open market for the first time in his professional life when the 2016 is over.

Even he is curious how he’ll handle it.

“I really don’t know,” Strasburg said. “It’s not like I’ve been in a contract year before. I know what I know, and I know that I go out there, and I bust my butt every single day. If I give it everything have to help this team win some games, all that other stuff is going to take care of itself. I guess the best I can do is just focus on the now and what I got going on today, and then when I go to bed, what do I have going on the next day. I’m going to stay in there and try to function in the same time zone.”

If Strasburg works through the season the way he has the last four, his payday will be ample. Strasburg’s four full major-league seasons have provided the Nationals a 3.17 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 10.3 strikeouts per inning. Should he come close to his dominant post-all-star break work from last season — 1.90 ERA, .179 BAA, a daunting 92 strikeouts in 66 1/3 innings — the cash haul will be even larger.

He’ll also be the king of a meek free agent class. No other free agent starting pitcher comes close to Strasburg’s pedigree and remaining potential. Most are veterans at the end of their careers.

Though the process is a first-time experience for Strasburg, he knows the topic will follow him from February to October.

“For me, you’re going to do your job and you’re going to ask your questions, whatever it may be, but it’s my job as a professional that when I come to the clubhouse, it’s important to be a good teammate,” Strasburg said. “It’s important to have the right frame of mind. That’s the reason why I play the game. I play the game to win. I’m a competitor first, and I want to win. I want to win for the Washington Nationals this year, and we’ll take it one year at a time.”

Last year, Strasburg was a mess at the beginning of the season. His body and mechanics were off. A sprained ankle from a “freak” happening in the Space Coast Stadium weight room in late March altered his schedule, then submarined his first two months of the season. He laughed when asked if re-entering the same weight room caused him trepidation, then, quickly, pointed out he has not repeated the exercise that injured his ankle last season.

April and May carried out-of-character ERAs of 4.60 and 10.13, respectively. His velocity was down. His fastball and changeup wandered. The results stunk, all a byproduct of his stiff ankle. Strasburg told the Nationals’ coaching staff he was all right to pitch, but the rigid ankle affected his landing before contorting his mechanics.

“The mechanics were off because his ankle was hurt,” former Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “He couldn’t finish on top. He came up and told us it was still bothering him. When you can’t roll over your front foot or finish, that affects your command.”

Strasburg felt his balance at the top of his delivery was poor. He began to throw more across his body, which he does naturally to begin with. His follow-through could well have been the biggest issue, he said. He was falling to the first-base side as he tried to pitch through his ankle problem.

“It really just messed with the rotation and feel of my pitches,” Strasburg said. “I knew it wasn’t really going too well. My curveball was OK, but my fastball and changeup, they were moving in both directions and I had a tough time figuring out why. A lot of it was just throwing it from a different angle, just with my timing being a little bit off with landing and everything. I was working with [McCatty] a lot and looking at video. Started to figure out what I was doing before to help me be more consistent. I started really focusing on that. It seems like the consistency started to come back.”

Progressively, Strasburg felt better. His post-all-star break run was on par with any pitcher in the major leagues. By multiple measures, it was the best half a season Strasburg has had since entering the league. The physical and mechanical fixes left him thankful for the irritating first months.

“It was good because I think something like that had to happen to really kind of understand how I work a little bit better,” Strasburg said. “I’ve always been just a feel guy. When I get into a rhythm, I don’t really think about anything. I get up there, I throw the pitch, I throw the next one. It’s really good to have that feeling. But, when you do kind of get into a hole a little bit, you have to get yourself out of it. You have to go back to your tried and true methods. I didn’t really know what those methods were, so I needed to kind of get popped in the mouth to see what it was.”

McCatty was Strasburg’s second pitching coach since he left high school in 2006. Mike Maddux, with the familiar name and bubbly personality, replaces McCatty this season. Strasburg talked with him at NatsFest during the offseason, then again briefly since arriving at spring training this week. The reviews of Maddux from others have been good.

“It is a little scary,” Strasburg said. “But, I think it’s a good situation. I love Cat. The relationship I have with Cat is always going to be there. But, I think it’s good to hear a new voice at the same time. I think they’re going to fairly similar in some ways, but very different in others, so it should be fun.”

The incremental processes that define baseball only swallow up the desperate who just keep trying harder when things go poorly, which is why looming contracts can be suppressive. Multiple players have gone through contract years and produced a money-reducing season. Former Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond appears to have fallen victim to that last season. Strasburg is aware of the phenomenon, though nonplussed by it.

“I really don’t read into that too much,” Strasburg said. “I just try to be myself. Family’s more important to me than baseball. I’m looking forward to the season, just spending time with my family. My mom’s able to finally come out a little bit more than she has in the past. So, I’m just excited to spend time with them. Especially have them see D.C.”

That’s one other twist to Strasburg’s season. His mother, Kathleen Swett, was his grandmother’s primary caretaker for several years. Strasburg’s grandmother died in the offseason. The reduced responsibilities will allow his mother to visit Washington and to spend more time with her two-year-old granddaughter.

“We’ve got to get the grandparents out here,” Strasburg said.

So, he’ll have his family in Washington to help him navigate what is likely his final season with the Nationals.

When Strasburg walked out to the back fields of Space Coast Stadium for an opening workout, he took the initial steps toward free agency. There’s only one sure season in Washington left. How he handles it will be a story throughout.

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