The Braves' new right fielder Nick Markakis is a 31-year-old average MLB player and that sort of player would be useful for many teams. Markakis is the kind of veteran who can step in and be valuable for a team competing for a playoff spot in 2015 and the major question with regards to this signing is are the Braves one of the teams that should expect to be in the playoff hunt next September. Right now the Braves do not look like a team that should be expected to outperform last year's 79 win team which makes this deal seem misguided.
The first problem with Markakis is that he is 31 years old. There is no upside to Markakis because he cannot be reasonably expected to be a better player at any point in the future than he was last season. Markakis will in the best case scenario maintain his 2014 form where he was slightly above average on offense and an average player overall. More likely he will begin his permanent decline in 2015. Two seasons ago, he was a barely replacement level player, actually lower in overall value than 2014 BJ Upton. Steamer projects Markakis to be right in the middle of his average 2014 and his abysmal 2013, which isn’t exactly what you hope for with your big free agent signing.
The outlook on Markakis gets worse when you look at the projections over the life of the contract. ZIPS projects Markakis to be a replacement level player by his fourth year in Atlanta and ZIPS projects the total value of Markakis in Atlanta to be a slight notch lower than his total value from last season. Markakis had a major bounceback year in 2014 but the projections expect that to be a fluke season and Markakis to go from below average in 2015 to below replacement level in 2018. To give a comparison to what he is replacing, ZIPS projects Markakis’s total value in four years in Atlanta to be half of what Jason Heyward will give the Cardinals in 2015. Markakis is a major step down in quality from Heyward in other words.
Now that sort of side by side comparison isn’t particularly fair. Heyward wasn’t traded for Markakis, Heyward was traded for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. It isn’t relevant to this deal how much worse Markakis is than Heyward other than projecting what the Braves will look like in 2015 relative to what they were in 2014.
The problem for the Braves is that it is difficult imagining the 2015 Braves being better than the team that won 79 games in 2014. Right now the Braves outfield is Markakis in right, BJ Upton in center and Justin Upton in left. Markakis will be much less valuable than Heyward as the Braves' right fielder. All signs point to Justin Upton being traded and Evan Gattis moved to left field. If the Braves insist on BJ Upton being included in any Justin Upton trade that will kill any return the Braves get for Justin meaning the outfield will be Markakis, Gattis, and whomever the Braves get to play centerfield for them. If BJ is not included in a Justin Upton trade, that will cause the trade to yield a bigger return for Atlanta, but BJ Upton will still be on the roster. That would leave the Braves either starting BJ once again or trying to add another centerfielder with the 45 million owed to BJ still on the books.
Gattis is projected by Steamer to be a below average player in left field in 2015, with a total value actually identical to Markakis. This leaves the Braves with two corner outfielders who project as below average MLB players in 2015, replacing a guy in right who was rated as a top ten position player in the NL in 2014, and a guy in left who in 2014 was a top 20 position player in the NL. In short, Markakis and Gattis project to be much worse overall in 2015 than Heyward and Justin were in 2014.
If Gattis moves to left field, that means Christian Bethancourt will be the Braves first choice catcher in 2015. Bethancourt is a player who has hit like BJ Upton as a minor leaguer and who is yet to turn his considerable defensive tools into defensive skills. The catcher position like the corner outfield spots would be much worse in 2015 than 2014. There is still a lot that can happen in the offseason and if the Braves did move BJ Upton that would give the team some extra money to purchase a centerfield replacement. While catcher, left field and right field look likely to be less productive spots for Atlanta in 2015 than 2014, this would be offset to some degree by the Braves replacing BJ with an actual MLB caliber player. Overall though, I think the Braves roster will be inferior to the one that only won 79 games last season. 2015 doesn’t look like a year in which the Braves will realistically compete for a playoff spot.
If the premise is accepted that the Braves aren’t competing for the playoffs next season, then the Markakis signing becomes more problematic. Markakis is 31 and, regardless of his production this year, it is reasonable to expect 2015 to be Markakis’ best year in an Atlanta uniform. The natural aging curve of players says Markakis is already in his decline phase and will get progressively worse each year he is in Atlanta. Markakis just isn’t a player that a rebuilding team needs, and his contract seems like a poor fit for a team as budget conscious as the Braves. Markakis is projected to be useless by the end of his contract, and this would limit the Braves budget during the time in which they should be back in position to contend again in 2017 and 2018.
Markakis isn’t a building block player because he has no upside and will only become less valuable each year of his contract. As a result, the value of a player like Markakis is filling a hole on a contending team. If the Braves had a strong overall roster and the only real hole was right field then Markakis would be the perfect guy to slot in at that position as the team made a run at a title in 2015. The Braves as currently constructed are not a contender, therefore they need to be signing players who figure to be contributors in two or three seasons or alternatively guys who will be off the books in two years. Markakis is neither of those things.
Another aspect of why signing Markakis is perplexing is that it doesn’t seem to fit with the other big move of the Braves offseason so far. The Braves traded one year of Jason Heyward for four seasons of Shelby Miller and six seasons of Tyrell Jenkins. The logic behind that trade was that it was smart to trade an excellent player who would leave after 2015 for two players who will be contributors for years to come. Projections agree that Heyward will be much better than Miller in 2015 so this was a move that made the team worse in the short term, with that downgrade being offset by the hope that Miller & Jenkins would provide more total value in six years than Heyward would in one. The Heyward trade seemed to be a move that signaled the Braves conceding contention in 2015 with an eye towards building for the future. The Braves rumored plans to trade Justin Upton fit with this idea.
This strategy is reasonable but undermined by the Markakis signing, which gives the Braves added value in 2015 at the cost of adding what will be another anvil around the neck of the Braves payroll in 2017 and 2018. Now 11 million dollars per year isn't a massive, franchise crippling figure. It is, however, a meaningful figure that will at the very least limit the Braves flexibility down the road.
Now I am not a member of any MLB front office. I don’t have years of experience running a team and the Braves front office is certainly made up of individuals much smarter than me. As far as I can tell the Braves plan seems to be to trade Heyward and the Uptons for long term assets like Jenkins and players who can fill the gaps like Miller. The hope would be that Markakis and possibly Bethancourt are able to step in and keep the team in the playoff race. This way the team stays in playoff contention in 2015 while still being in a good position to compete in the longterm.
The flaw in this plan is that I don’t see the team as contending in 2015. The Braves were very bad in 2014, and the current roster seems worse. There is still plenty of time to upgrade the roster this offseason but I am having trouble seeing the team being able to make the kind of upgrades needed to make this team markedly better than it was in 2014. Building for the future is fine, going all in on 2015 is fine, but the Braves seem to be pursuing a medium between the two that I fear will trap the Braves in longterm mediocrity.
In a vacuum there is nothing wrong with having Nick Markakis as the Braves' right fielder in 2015. He was an average MLB player in 2014 and average players are harder to come by than many people think. The problem is that the signing undermines the positives that came from trading Heyward and locks the Braves into a guy who projects to be worthless before his contract ends. There is still plenty of offseason left for the Braves and it is possible the Braves are in much better shape to contend in 2015 than it seems. Right now it seems like the Braves are headed towards a worst of all possible worlds where they aren't good enough to contend but not setting themselves up for the future either.