By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009; D03
Jason Marquis, the newest member of the Washington Nationals, considers himself a keen monitor of baseball's inner workings. He knows the trades, the transactions and the rumors of a 30-team social network. He likes to think he knows more about organizations than their latest won-loss record. His appearance Tuesday afternoon at Nationals Park -- and more centrally, the two-year, $15 million contract that brought him there -- vouched for the right-hander's sense of an underground movement that's afloat: Indeed, the poorest-finishing team this fall is having one of baseball's best winters.
Marquis's signing with the Nationals won't transform them into a contender, but it marks another uptick in Washington's rise from laughingstock depths. Since the conclusion of a 103-loss season, General Manager Mike Rizzo has checked off most of his needs, obtaining some relief pitching help (Brian Bruney), a catcher (Iván Rodríguez), and now a reliable veteran starter. It's all had something of a cumulative effect, with every move inching the Nationals that much closer to respectability, and every move making the Nationals that much more palatable (even desirable) for free agents.
"I think there's a positive momentum," Rizzo said. "People see what we're trying to do. People see we're bringing in some veteran presence with a very good core of young players. But they also see these major league players like a Pudge Rodríguez and an Adam Dunn who have the option to go anywhere in baseball [and come here] I think it's a statement of where the franchise is headed."
Before Christmas the Nationals might soon attract yet another free agent. Reliever Matt Capps, non-tendered by Pittsburgh earlier this month, will decide sometime between Wednesday night and Thursday morning on his next team, agent Paul Kinzer said. Capps's two finalists: The Nationals and the Chicago Cubs.
If the deal that sent Marquis to Washington demonstrated this organization's improved perception among free agents, a subsequent move Tuesday night reinforced it. Continuing their active offseason, the Nationals were closing in on an agreement with free agent reliever Eddie Guardado, according to a source. It will likely be a one-year, non-guaranteed deal.
Guardado, a decorated closer in his prime, had pondered retirement after his 2009 season, which included a 4.46 ERA (38 1/3 innings) and a disabled list stint because of left knee inflammation. But now, the 39-year-old lefty could lend a role in the middle of Washington's bullpen.
His most notable connection with the Nationals, prior to this offseason, came via a joke. At the trade deadline in 2008, Guardado, then with the Rangers, was summoned from the steam room and told by his manager that he'd been dealt to Washington. According to various news accounts, Guardado was incensed -- until he realized it was a prank.
At that time, the Nationals were known league-wide as a repository for six-year minor league free agents and low-budget signings. But since then, they've signed Dunn. They inked a lucrative mid-August deal with No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg. They added a future Hall of Famer, Rodríguez. With each addition, the sales pitch to the next target has become easier.
"I follow baseball; I'm a baseball fan," Marquis said. "I follow teams -- what direction they're going in, what moves they make, what they're looking for." Speaking strictly about the Nationals, Marquis said, "They're in a phase where they've gone out and made the improvements they need to become a winning team."
When Marquis pitched against the Nationals in early July, he witnessed (and, yes, defeated) a team at its nadir. During a three-game series at Coors Field (July 6-8), the Nationals committed seven errors and scored eight runs. The Nationals, using nothing but rookie starters, lost all three, dropping to 25-58. A week later they'd fire their manager.
At least to hear Marquis tell it, the tipping point that changed Washington's fortunes -- and its desirability as a destination -- came in August with the signing of Strasburg.
"They could easily have not taken him because maybe the money is too high," Marquis said. "They showed the commitment."
Asked for his own assessment of Strasburg's importance, Rizzo said: "It was an important time for the Nationals, I'll say that. It not only put us on the map in the amateur free agent market, but it also showed the commitment that the Lerner family and I have to the Washington market. That was an important day."
Now, the Nationals hope Marquis can provide a trickle-down benefit of his own. He'll most likely inherit the top spot in the rotation, and as a result, he'll ease the pressure on younger starters like John Lannan and (eventually) Strasburg. In 2009, Marquis lasted seven innings or more 16 times. In 2009, Washington's starters went seven or more innings just 28 times total.
Last year, shortly after the Strasburg signing, Colorado visited Washington at Nationals Park. After one game, Marquis went out to socialize with a group that included Lannan, among others. Lannan told Marquis that he loved pitching in D.C., but added, according to Marquis's recollection, "that there was a lot of pressure on him to lead the staff."
"Sometimes it's asking a lot for a first-year, second-year player to lead a pitching staff," Marquis said, "but he's done a great job with that. And hopefully I can add to that."