For those clamoring for the Braves to move on from Nick Markakis this offseason, I regret to inform you that he will be back with the team next season. Like an old friend showing up at your wedding uninvited, it might initially be nice to see him again but eventually you’ll wonder what he’s doing there. Many Braves fans reasonably hope for an upgrade in the outfield after Markakis was only slightly above replacement level in 2019 yet was utilized as an everyday starter in the heart of the lineup.
Alex Anthopoulos said after re-signing Markakis that the team plans to use him as a platoon in left field and mentioned Adam Duvall as a potential platoon-mate. This is what you would hope to hear from a General Manager of a team in its competitive window after signing a slightly above replacement level player who will be 36 years old on Opening Day. And if used as a platoon or bench player, Markakis provides good value. His $4 million contract (or $6 million if you count his buyout) is a shrewd move to retain a decent bench bat or platoon player.
The concern, though, is that manager Brian Snitker has shown strong loyalty to Markakis and overused him during his tenure. Certainly, at some point, this must change, and hopefully, with Anthopoulos’s signaling, 2020 will be the season that the Braves use Markakis in his proper supporting role.
With Markakis back, the Braves now have potentially set their outfield for 2020. They could, and likely will, platoon Markakis and Duvall in left field, play Ender Inciarte in center, and Ronald Acuña, Jr. in right to start the season. They will have Austin Riley capable of backing up in left field, and Charlie Culberson and Johan Camargo can also provide depth in the outfield. Top prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters will also hopefully be ready to contribute in the majors this season and could form a formidable trio in the outfield along with Acuña for the foreseeable future.
The Braves’ future in the outfield is bright, but what about the 2020 season? I have long thought this is the most intriguing question of the offseason for the Braves: How will the Braves construct an outfield capable of winning a championship in 2020 while still allowing their two young outfield prospects room to grow into a starting role? While I am generally not a believer that a team should avoid upgrading their major-league roster out of fear of “blocking” a prospect, it does not seem like the best use of resources to sign a free agent outfielder to a multi-year contract for tens of millions when you have the likes of Acuña, Waters, and Pache (not to mention Inciarte, who is a Gold Glove center fielder on a team-friendly contract under team control for the next three seasons).
So are the Braves content with their current outfield going into the 2020 season? The answer will depend on what happens during the rest of the offseason. If the team fails to re-sign Josh Donaldson and whiffs on big bats like Anthony Rendon and Yasmani Grandal, the necessity of improving their outfield offensively becomes much more urgent.
The problem with the current outfield configuration is the lack of offense that it provides. Markakis was a slightly above average hitter in 2019 with a 102 wRC+, and Inciarte, while playing excellent defense, has nonetheless been a below-average hitter his whole career. Couple these two with Dansby Swanson, who has improved each season but is a career 81 wRC+ hitter, and a platoon of catchers which will include Tyler Flowers, and the Braves could again have a bottom half of the order that does not appear capable of competing for a title. (Unless, of course, the Braves would sign Grandal.) Hopefully Waters and/or Pache could provide an offensive boost in 2020, but relying on a couple of 20-year-olds who have yet to debut in the majors is risky.
To be fair, the Braves won 97 games in 2019 with such a lineup. However, we saw what happens with such a lineup construction in the playoffs if a couple of the 1-4 hitters go cold - they got beat by an inferior team.
The Braves could still improve their 2020 outfield without hindering the progress of their prospects. It would require getting a productive veteran on a short-term deal either via trade or free agency. Here are a few options the Braves could still pursue:
Trade for Starling Marte
The Pirates exercised Marte’s option for $11.5 million for the 2020 season, and the team holds a $12.5 million option for the 2021 season with a $2 million buyout. The Pirates will not be competitive the next two seasons, so it makes sense that they will look to deal Marte in exchange for prospects.
Marte is a perennial 3+ WAR player, having totaled at least 3 fWAR in each of his last seven seasons except for 2017 when he was suspended 80 games for PED use. Marte has a good mix of speed and hitting for both power and average. He has a career 116 wRC+ and is coming off a 119 wRC+ season with a career high in home runs (23). Statcast pegs him as a plus defender with two Outs Above Average in 2019 and 10 OAA in 2018, but FanGraphs is not as impressed, giving him -8 Defensive Runs Saved over the past two seasons.
Able to play left field and center field, Marte could be an offensive upgrade over Inciarte, who could then be dealt, or relegate Markakis to a bench role, thus improving the team’s depth. Marte offers a good opportunity to upgrade the outfield without having to commit to a long-term deal. With his contract only providing two years of team control, the Pirates are not likely to get a haul of prospects in return, either.
Additionally, the Braves could look to kill two birds with one stone and acquire Chris Archer from the Pirates as a replacement for Julio Teheran. Archer had a dreadful 2019 season, but he might be a good buy-low option. Archer, who was a front-line starter for the Rays earlier in his career and posted a 4.5 fWAR season as recently as 2017, might benefit from a change in scenery, a la Sonny Gray in 2019.
Sign Avisail Garcia
Garcia is one of the most intriguing free agents this offseason. He is only 28 years old, has proven capable of being a very good outfield at times, and could be one of the best bargains of the offseason. His last three seasons:
2017: 136 games, .330 average, 138 wRC+, 4.2 fWAR
2018: 93 games, 0.1 fWAR, 93 wRC+ (missed significant time due to hamstring injury)
2019: 125 games, 1.8 fWAR, 112 wRC+
Garcia is a big dude – 6’4”, 250 pounds – but moves very well in his frame. He was in the 90th percentile in sprint speed and above average defensively with three OAA in 2019, per Statcast. He has hit for good power, as well, with just over 24 home runs per 150 games played over the past three seasons.
MLB Trade Rumors projects that Garcia will receive a contract for two years, $12 million. At that price and length, Garcia would be hard to pass on, given his upside.
Sign Yasiel Puig
After a down 2019 season in Cincinnati and Cleveland, Puig might be looking to re-establish his value on a one-year deal. MLB Trade Rumors projects a one-year, $8 million contract for him. Puig has always been entertaining if not frustrating. He has tremendous talent yet has failed to have a 2 WAR season in four of his last five seasons. His maturity and mental lapses will always be an issue, but the talent is still there. He is somehow only 28 years old and can still hit despite his mediocre 2019 offensive showing. His wRC+ in the last three seasons have been 117, 123, and 101, and he’s hit at least 23 home runs in each of those seasons. Puig could provide good power in a platoon with Markakis or even supplant him in a starting role if Puig rebounds offensively.