Braves Sign Outfielder Nick Markakis

nmarkakis1The Atlanta Braves have signed free agent right fielder Nick Markakis to a four-year, $44 million deal. The 31-year-old Woodstock, Georgia, native won the American League Gold Glove award in right field last year, the second time in his nine-year career he has won the award.

If you’re counting at home, then four is now the number of starting outfielders that the Braves employ–Markakis, B.J. Upton, Justin Upton and presumably Evan Gattis, as the team (or team sources) have indicated that he will shift from catcher to left field next year. That means one of them will need to be traded, and by process of elimination it will either be Gattis or Justin, and more likely Justin.

Moving Justin Upton–a long-rumored next trade for Atlanta–is now a virtual certainty. The Winter Meetings start next week, and he will probably be moved there. So before fully judging this signing of Markakis it needs to be seen in the context of the entire remaking of the outfield, which is still TBD.

What we do know is that Jason Heyward has been replaced in right field by Markakis, while the team netted a mid-rotation starter and a starting pitching prospect. In left field the team appears set to replace Justin Upton with Gattis, and in the process will get some additional players and/or prospects.

We also have to look at this in the context of the new stadium, opening in 2017. This is a four-year deal, and gives the team another controllable player for the first two years of the new park, at a relatively low cost. It’s almost certainly a lower cost after next year than Heyward would have been, and the Braves know that after having had long-term contract discussions with him.

nmarkakis3Markakis allows the Braves to be more competitive now (or to at least replace the competitiveness they lost when they traded J-Hey), and stay competitive for the next four years. But don’t think of him as just replacing Heyward.

Markakis is likely the first piece of an offensive rebuilding project that deemphasizes SABR attributes like WAR and advanced stats for the more scouting-centric qualities in players, like consistency and a grinder mentality. (Seriously, Google “John Hart grind at bat,” he’s been talking about that kind of thing glowingly for years, and mentions it repeatedly in interviews since he took over as not-GM.)

But the consistency of Markakis matters too. One important piece that was removed from Atlanta’s lineup when Chipper Jones retired was a consistent hitter against both left-handed and right-handed pitching. Markakis brings that back (although not as good as a Hall of Famer), and brings it to a spot in the lineup that didn’t have it before. Check out these lefty/righty splits for Markakis and Heyward:

AVG/OPS vs. RHP career vs. LHP career vs. RHP 2014 vs. LHP 2014
Markakis .291/.816 .288/.743 .274/.751 .280/.673
Heyward .281/.788 .221/.650 .304/.820 .169/.477

This signing is likely the first part of a trend for the team as they strive to add more balance to any spot in the lineup that they can bring more balance to. Essentially they’re trying to build an offense that can score a few runs every night, rather than one that scores in bunches then goes on long droughts. This is also consistent with their building of a pitching staff that features a mid-to-top of the rotation guy every night.

nmarkakis2I believe this is a good move for Atlanta. While Markakis is not a flashy player, and he doesn’t put up monster stats, he does add needed consistency to Atlanta’s lineup. He hasn’t made an error since August 10, 2012, but advanced defensive statistics don’t like him due to his average range (which hurts his WAR stats). So again, in the field he’s more consistency than flash.

The Braves didn’t sign a superstar, but they got tired of waiting for Heyward to become one, so they got what they could for him, and replaced him with a boringly decent above-average player.

Only time will tell how Markakis fares in Atlanta from his age-31 season through his age-34 season. The Braves didn’t have good luck with big contracts to B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla (which I didn’t like at the time), but I’m optimistic Markakis will fare better since not as much of his value is tied up in his power, which is usually the first thing to go with age.

Now we’ll have to see what the team does with Justin and/or Gattis… stay tuned, the GM Meetings are next week. Markakis also continues the trend this offseason for the Braves of replacing players in the name of long-term rebuilding while still trying to build a competitive team for next year.

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