It’s never too early to start wildly speculating about the MLB trade deadline. In the past three years, we’ve seen big names like Cliff Lee, Manny Ramirez, Adam Dunn and Jason Bay switch teams for the stretch run. The mere sliver of a chance that a walk-year Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder might get dealt if their teams falter will trigger the sexiest trade talk. But more likely scenarios will involve players one tier down, who could be meaningful contributors for contending teams.
Players like Jason Marquis.
Wait, what? This isn’t the same Jason Marquis who threw up a 6.60 ERA and 5.65 FIP in the 58.2 innings in which he wasn’t injured, is it?
That’s the thing, it’s not. The 32-year-old right-hander has become a change-up specialist this season, throwing the pitch 21.5% of the time so far this season — by far the highest frequency of his career. The pitch been spectacularly effective too, worth 4.4 runs through his first five starts of the season.
The results have been impressive. Through 34.1 innings, Marquis owns a K rate of 6.29/9 IP — pedestrian compared to many other pitchers, but still his highest strikeout rate in nine years. His microscopic 0.26 HR/9 IP rate will almost surely go up, with hitters turning just 3.3% of their flyballs against him into homers. Still, Marquis the groundball pitcher (50.1% GB rate for his career) has cranked up his worm-burning this year, posting a career-high 56.7% GB rate.
The biggest change has been in his walk rate: Marquis has never walked fewer than three batters per nine innings in his major league career. He’s at 1.31 BB/9 IP so far in 2011. That’s tied for the third-lowest walk rate in baseball, lower than many notoriously stingy control artists, including Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee.
Unfortunately for Marquis, he’s pitching for a team that’s probably a few Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg development years from playoff contention. In the walk year of his two-year, $15 million contract, that makes him prime trade bait this summer.
One team that could be a serious suitor is the Cleveland Indians. As Dave Cameron recently wrote, the Indians’ offense might well be for real. But after Justin Masterson, it’s hard to find a high-upside pitcher anywhere in the rotation. Fausto Carmona has shown flashes of success mixed with major volatility over the years. Josh Tomlin’s 4-0 record is swell, but his sub-5 strikeout rate, .179 BABIP and 91.7% strand rate scream regression ahead. Carlos Carrasco is Carlos Carrasco.
Marquis will likely face some of the regression issues awaiting the Tribe’s current starters. But there’s also some potentially real skills growth here, as Marquis harnesses his change-up to great effect. He’s been a durable starter throughout most of his career, piling up 32 or more starts five times in the 2004-2009 period. On a team that suddenly finds itself a legitimate playoff contender (a .500 record for the rest of the season would yield 87 wins), getting some known pitching commodities with relatively high floors could offer significant value. With a potentially limited budget, two to three months of Marquis for about $3 million could make all kinds of sense, at a price that won’t include any elite prospects. As a Type B free agent (at best) at year’s end, there’s also little incentive for the Nats to keep Marquis all year.
Expect Chris Antonetti to make some moves this summer. Don’t be surprised if Jason Marquis is one of them.
Jonah Keri is the author of The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First -- now a National Bestseller! Follow Jonah on Twitter @JonahKeri, and check out his awesome podcast.