The Washington Nationals' top goal this offseason, stated again and again by general manager Mike Rizzo and a chorus of other team executives, was to put a veteran starting pitcher at the top of their young rotation. They appear to have crossed that goal off their list just before the end of the year - and at a cheaper price than many expected they would have to pay.
The team signed right-hander Jason Marquis, a 10-year veteran of four teams, to a contract worth $15 million over two seasons on Monday. The deal gives Washington a reliable workhorse who has posted double-digit victories each of the last six seasons, worked a career-high 216 innings last year and made the 2009 NL All-Star team.
The Nationals will introduce Marquis at a news conference on Tuesday at Nationals Park.
Marquis, who won 15 games for the Colorado Rockies in 2009, posted a 4.04 ERA, walked just 80 batters and gave up just 15 home runs for the second straight year, down from 35 in 2006. He pitched eight shutout innings against the Nationals on July 6, and first baseman Adam Dunn, who had faced Marquis for years in the NL Central when the right-hander was with the Cubs and Cardinals, said the pitcher was "not even close" to what he remembered.
"When I first faced him, he threw about 95, straight as an arrow," Dunn said that night. "Someone taught him a sinker. The difference between him now and in the past is he throws every pitch for a strike. It used to be he'd walk you."
Marquis struggled at the end of the season and was left out of the Rockies' playoff rotation. It's unclear whether that slide helped the Nationals get him at a cheaper price than some thought they would pay in a pitching market that escalated after the Milwaukee Brewers gave Randy Wolf a three-year, $29.75 million deal this month. But for whatever reason, they didn't pay the kind of "loser's premium" often required to bring a free agent to a last-place team.
Marquis' average annual value of $7.5 million equals what the Rangers gave right-hander Rich Harden, who went 9-9 with a 4.09 ERA last season. Harden has an $11 million option for 2011, as well.
A Staten Island native, Marquis still lives in New York during the offseason, and there were rumblings he preferred to sign with the Mets. But negotiations never got serious with New York, and the Nationals - in whom Marquis had also expressed interest after the winter meetings this month - wound up with the 31-year-old.
The Nationals could add another veteran to the rotation before the beginning of the season, but if they don't, it could look like this: Marquis and left-hander John Lannan filling the top two spots, with left-hander Scott Olsen the No. 3 and a group of youngsters (Craig Stammen, Shairon Martis, Collin Balester, Garrett Mock, Ross Detwiler, J.D. Martin and possibly No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg) fighting for two spots.
In 10 major league seasons with the Braves, Cardinals, Cubs and Rockies, Marquis has never missed the playoffs. In signing with a team that has won 59 games the last two seasons, he's putting that streak in a lot of jeopardy.
But in joining the Nationals, he adds a veteran pitching presence to a team that has been in sore need of it and has been shopping for it all winter.