Jason Marquis makes his seventh start of the year for the Nationals tonight, 361 days after he had surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow. When Marquis went to Cincinnati for that operation, he'd become something of a punch line, his 20.52 ERA in three starts looking like evidence the Nationals should never have signed him to a two-year, $15 million contract.
Now, though, as he takes the mound for the Nationals tonight against Tim Hudson and the Braves, Marquis might be their best right-handed starter.
He's surged back from his operation, posting a 3.66 ERA in his first six starts of the year. Marquis has resolutely pounded the strike zone with his fastball, and that's made his off-speed pitches as effective as ever; his slider has been 2.1 runs above replacement, and his changeup, at 3.2 runs above replacement, is the best of his career. He's getting ground balls in a career-high 56.1 percent of his at-bats, and his homers-per-fly balls percentage reads like the introductory APR on a credit card offer: 5.9 percent.
Five weeks into the season, Marquis looks as valuable as ever. But like those introductory rates rise, he's likely to start giving up more homers as the season goes on. He's also walking batters almost twice as rarely as he has in his career; can that last? And Marquis' performance is peaking as he's due to become a free agent after the season.
That leaves the Nationals with an interesting question: Do they keep Marquis through the season, hoping his performance stays at a high level, or do they think about trading him this summer to a team that needs a veteran starter?
Some of that will depend on how the team plays. The Nationals are two games below .500 at the moment, and they're sitting there despite having one of the worst offenses in baseball. But their chances at a playoff run are minuscule; they're in the only division in baseball that has three 20-win teams at the moment, and the Phillies, who lead the division by three games, have baseball's best record at 23-11.
So the question about Marquis depends more on whether the Nationals plan to keep him after the season, and that's a tougher call. The right-hander will be 33 in August, and likely goes into the offseason knowing this could be his last shot at a multi-year contract. He's making $7.5 million a season, and though there are several big names in this year's free agent class, many of them (Adam Wainwright, Scott Kazmir) are injury concerns with team options for 2012 or inconsistent (Edwin Jackson, Zach Duke). If Marquis keeps pitching well, his agent could legitimately position him as the third-best pitcher in the free agent class, behind Mark Buehrle and Joel Piniero, and with the young pitchers the Nationals have coming, it seems unlikely they'd invest another multi-year deal in Marquis. They could offer MArquis arbitration, but even if they do, and he enters the free agent market with some steam from a solid year, he could find better options on the open market. And 2012 looks like a much better year to be a free agent pitcher than 2013, when the market could be crowded with younger free agents like Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke, Francisco Liriano and Joe Saunders.
It would seem, then, like the Nationals' best option might be to trade Marquis this summer. But that's all contingent on him continuing to pitch well, and the team feeling like the benefit to keeping him the rest of the season isn't great enough to prevent a trade.
Right now, though, it would appear the Nationals have a legitimate trade chip - and given where Marquis was a year ago, that's saying a lot.