A lot riding for the Nationals on Stephen Strasburg in 2016

There is a lot riding on this season for Stephen Strasburg as he enters the final year of his contract with the Nationals. Few players in recent memory have arrived in baseball with as much hype as Strasburg did after Washington made him the first overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft.

Of course, we all remember his stunning 14-strikeout debut against the Pirates on that gorgeous night in June 2010. But then Tommy John surgery shelved the right-hander, and when he returned, relentless debates on how to best maintain his long-term health dominated conversations throughout the division-winning 2012 season for the Nationals.

strasburg-pitching-red-stride-sidebar.jpgDespite his 8-9 record, Strasburg was stellar for much of 2013 and then tied for the National League lead with 242 strikeouts in 2014. So with the Nationals expected to contend for a World Series, hopes were for Strasburg putting the total package together while challenging for a Cy Young last year.

But a sprained left ankle late in spring training disrupted Strasburg’s early season and a benign growth in his back led to two stints on the disabled list. But to Strasburg’s credit, he battled through the adversity, finishing the season on a torrid run, once again proving himself among the game’s elite pitchers.

The Nationals won eight of Strasburg’s final 10 starts, while the right-hander went 6-2 with a 1.90 ERA, fanning 92 with just eight walks over 66 1/3 innings.

“Last year, he had some ups and downs,” fellow starter Max Scherzer said to ESPN Radio 101 in St. Louis on Monday. “I think he actually grew as a pitcher because of that. Sometimes you’re just gonna get punched in the mouth at this type of level. It does not matter how good you are. Guys are gonna figure you out and they’re gonna get you. But you can’t get upset or frustrated by that. You actually have to learn how to get better because of that. And I think that’s what we saw from him in the second half is somebody who really came out motivated and really wanted to show that he is that good. He had a heck of a second half and I think that’s a good precursor for what’s gonna happen in 2016.”

With the departures of right-handers Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister, the Nationals need a dominating Strasburg more than ever. Coupled with Scherzer, the two arguably pose the best one-two punch in the top of a rotation in the majors.

Maybe the Nationals are able to re-sign Strasburg after the season or maybe this is his final act in Washington. Either way, his performance promises to factor heavily in the success of the 2016 Nationals.

“You know, winning cures a lot of things,” Strasburg said earlier this offseason. “I’m just gonna do everything in (my) power to get better and help this team win games. When the time comes to make decisions, it will happen.”

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