By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 22, 2009; D01
Through two years of epic losing, the Washington Nationals had both a clear deficiency (they lacked a quality veteran pitcher) and a clear objective (they needed to find one). More specifically, the Nationals needed a veteran who could anchor the top of their rotation, lighten the burden on their younger pitchers and just maybe win a few games in the process.
On Monday, with the signing of free agent right-hander Jason Marquis, Washington closed its greatest hole and fulfilled the primary aim of its offseason. Marquis, an all-star in 2009, agreed to a two-year, $15 million contract, pending a physical, according to three sources. The deal immediately places Marquis atop the team's pitching rotation, establishing him as the legitimizing presence on a starting staff that will try to improve on last season's 4.97 ERA.
"Just coming to an organization that started making moves to brighten their future, I feel like being part of that could be something special," Marquis said. Stephen "Strasburg could be something special. [John] Lannan has been great the last two years. Pudge [Rodríguez] to mentor. I just wanted to be a part of something where they were showing they were going in the right direction, and also something where they wanted you to be a part of it."
Though the deal will not be finalized until Marquis passes the physical, the Nationals have scheduled a news conference for Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. to announce the signing.
Even before Monday, the Nationals had enjoyed a fruitful offseason, first restocking their front office with a brigade of respected scouts, then trading for reliever Brian Bruney, then signing free agent catcher Iván Rodríguez. Check, check, check: General Manager Mike Rizzo was moving down his wish list.
Without a drastic improvement from the pitching staff, though, the other changes figured to serve little purpose.
And so Rizzo, earlier this month, made contact with almost every respectable free agent pitcher on the market. The Nationals showed interest in Jon Garland, Joel Piñeiro and Vicente Padilla, among others.
By successfully luring Marquis, 31, the Nationals landed a lifetime National Leaguer who last year went 15-13 with a 4.04 ERA with Colorado. For much of his 10-year career, he has put up numbers in line with the league average, but even that makes him stand out on Washington's staff. Last year, only one Washington pitcher topped 110 innings; Marquis has topped 190 innings in five of the last six seasons. In each season since 2004, Marquis has won at least 11 games. The Nationals, since moving to the District in 2005, have only seen starters win 11 or more in a season three times.
Though Marquis has more career wins (94) than all other starters on Washington's 40-man roster combined, his signing draws on similarities as well as contrasts. Like several of the team's young starters -- Lannan, Craig Stammen and J.D. Martin -- Marquis relies on finesse rather than strikeouts. Only five pitchers in the majors last season induced a greater percentage of groundball outs.
Initially, according to one source familiar with the team's pitching search, the Nationals targeted Garland, a 6-foot-6 right-hander who typifies the sort of hurler Rizzo appreciates. When Garland hedged -- he is believed to prefer a West Coast team -- the Nationals turned their attention to Marquis, who lives in Staten Island, N.Y.
Marquis's previous contract was a three-year deal worth $21 million. In many ways, Marquis saved his best for 2009, matching a career high in wins and establishing a personal high-water mark for innings pitched (216). But Marquis showed a few signs of unevenness, going 4-7 with a 4.56 ERA after the all-star break.
When he beat the Nationals at Coors Field on July 6, however, he was at his best. He threw eight scoreless innings, out-dueling Stammen in a 1-0 Colorado victory. He earned his 11th win, best in the majors at the time. Manny Acta, the Nationals' manager then, called Marquis "outstanding," and Adam Dunn said, "His ball moves everywhere."
"He's a pitcher a lot like me," said Stammen, who noted their shared preference for sinkers. "He's a guy I need to be like in the future."
Marquis's deal continues a great offseason for free agent pitchers, who have capitalized on a league-wide frenzy for arms. Earlier this month, the Brewers signed Randy Wolf to a three-year, $29.75 million deal. Brad Penny received a one-year, $7.5 million contract from St. Louis and Rich Harden received a one-year, $7.5 million contract from Texas.