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Series Nineteen: Marlins at Nationals

Mike took the day off yesterday and the Marlins returned to their winning ways. Maybe it's time we retired Mike. My attempts at running the site seem to have been pretty successful. Just kidding. I know who signs my fat paychecks and I'll be glad to see Mike back later today.

Moving on, the Marlins are in the nation's capital today, where they'll start a three game set against the surprising Nationals. As you probably already know, we refuse to acknowledge the Nats new mascot on this site, so for our series preview we once again sat down with Youppi, who was the mascot of the Washington club before they moved from Montreal.

: Welcome back to Fish Stripes, Youppi! We're two full months into the season and your former boys are looking like legitimate contenders in a tough division. What's driven their surprising start?

: Well, at a team level, nothing in particular stands out. Offensively, the Nats are ranked towards the bottom of the league in just about every meaningful category. Pitching-wise, not much stands out either. The Nationals are allowing one of the lowest OPS-against rates in the NL, which certainly helps things (though their poor strikeout-to-walk ratio undermines that to some degree).

So, in that sense, a lot of the Nationals favorable record (28-26) is due to some good luck. As we've talked about before, they're generally being outscored (217-235 on the year) and if that holds up, they're not likely to be a winning ballclub over the full year.

On an individual level, a number of players have been pleasant surprises. Nick Johnson (.333/.442/.529) and Jose Guillen (.299/.333/.523) lead that list offensively. On the pitching side, Esteban Loiaza and tonight's starter, Livan Hernandez, have been solid enough. John Patterson and Tomo Ohka have both been better than expected, but Patterson missed a few starts with a groin issue.

: I saw that Nick Johnson made (site hero) Jacob Luft's list of NL all-stars.

: Yes, and it's well deserved recognition. Unfortunately Johnson is behind Derrek Lee - current MLB Triple Crown leader - and Albert Pujols - who's all-everything. Despite Johnson's great stats, he could be left off the NL All-Star team.

: There was trade talk involving these two teams this week. Can you explain the logic of the trade for us?

: Some sources say a Zach Day for Juan Encarnacion deal was a done deal until it was discovered that Day had a fracture in his wrist (Ken Griffey Jr. played sniper with Day's wrist earlier in the week). Other sources have said that the proposed deal included the Reds and Danny Graves (obviously, this is from before Graves became a free agent).

Based on those inconsistencies, it's tough to say what the deal/upside was for each team. The Marlins would like to move Encarnacion's salary ($4.4 million this season). But in doing so they'd give have to give up almost all of their offensive depth. Without Juan, Jeff Conine would become an everyday outfielder - which he probably deserves to be this year. The only problem is that would force the Fish to promote an unproven bat from the minors. Not only would have they have an unproven entity on the bench, but they'd also end up sitting a guy who could be getting regular playing time in the minors.

Day would provide the Marlins with some starting pitching depth, but I'm not convinced that's something that the Marlins actually need - especially with the prospect of Ismael Valdez coming back at some point. I almost suspect that if the Marlins had landed Day it would have been to set up another deal - although anything specific about that would purely be speculation on my part.

Encarnacion would probably be a favorite of Nats GM Jim Bowden. Bowden acquired Encarnacion (in 2002) when he was the Reds GM. And we all know how enamored Bowden can become with "toolsy" players (see Guzman, Cristian). In that sense, I can see the "logic" in the trade for the Nats.

Back to the Marlins perspective though, I wonder if interest in trading for a pitcher tells us anything about A.J. Burnett. As we all know, Burnett had some injury concerns recently - and possibly more importantly to the Marlins, he's due for free agency at the end of the season (as is Encarnacion). The thinking could be that if they can pick up Day, who is a few years away from free agency and is making less than half a million this year, they could pick up some cheap, quality innings from a young pitcher.

: You mentioned Danny Graves, who's still a free agent - although he's expressed interest (allegedly) in the Marlins. Do you think the Marlins should pursue him?

: It's a tough call. BP projects that he'll be slightly more valuable than the generally available reliever over the next few years so in that sense, picking him up for the remainder of the year is logical.

However, reality seems to differ from that. Often times we tend to overstate the importance of ERA. For Graves, who "achieved" and ERA of 7.36 this year, it can be mis-leading. Yes, 7.36 is a horrible ERA. But it's probably a little bit better than what Graves deserved for how he actually pitched. Independent of the defense behind him, Graves probably deserved an ERA a little above 8.00 (and yes, that link should work for everyone - the previous link was subscription only).

Even more concerning is Graves 8 strikeout to 12 walk ratio in his 18 1/3 innings pitched this year. Granted, that's a small sample size, but it's still concerning. Walking two batters every three innings is dangerous, especially for a guy that you're likely to bring in late in a close ballgame. Free baserunners are not something you can afford in those situations. Coupling that with the low strikeout ratio, you have to be worried that Graves may have lost his stuff.

Throw all of that out the window though if Jack McKeon or Mark Wiley see something in his mechanics that they think they can fix. Both have worked with Graves before, so they know what they'd be getting. If the Marlins do pursue Graves, I think it will be because he's cheap and/or because they think they can fix whatever is ailing him.

: Thanks for your time today Youppi. We hope to see baseball in Montreal sometime soon.