Is Nick Markakis an Upgrade for the Atlanta Braves?
It's been an interesting off-season thus far for the Atlanta Braves.
A few weeks after trading away their right fielder, Jason Heyward, to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Braves found his replacement on Wednesday, signing former Baltimore Oriole Nick Markakis to a reported four-year, $45 million contract.
The Braves have traded away one of their better young players, are actively shopping three other outfielders - Justin Upton, B.J. Upton, and Evan Gattis - and were reportedly interested in signing Jon Lester.
It's hard to figure out just what the Braves are doing. Are they rebuilding with an eye toward 2017 when they move into their new stadium? Or are they retooling in an effort to compete in the National League East next year?
I still don't know.
As for the acquisition of Markakis, it certainly raises some eyebrows, especially when you compare him to the player Atlanta just traded away.
Obviously, this wasn't an even swap for the Braves. They acquired starting pitcher Shelby Miller from the Cardinals for Heyward, a guy who went 10-9 last year with a 3.74 ERA, but also sported a Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 4.54 and a strikeout/walk rate that is going in the wrong direction. Still, Miller is just 24 and has some upside as a number-three or number-four starter for Atlanta.
The one number that jumps out at you is Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement, in which Heyward far outpaces Markakis at 5.1-2.5. However, much of Heyward's value comes from his defense, and I think defense factors into WAR figures far too much. I certainly don't think Heyward was worth 5.1 wins above a replacement player. But Heyward is a better defender than Markakis - that much is certain.
Offensively, these are very similar players. Both sport decent batting averages and on-base percentages, and both don't slug the ball all that well. Markakis had more homers than Heyward but also needed 710 plate appearances to accumulate that 2.5 fWAR total.
And if you look at their nERD totals, a lineup full of Jason Heywards would have been worth 0.95 runs a game more than a league average player last year, 78th in MLB. Markakis' nERD of 0.63 was 104th.
The biggest difference between the two is age. The Braves gave up Heyward, who is just 25, and replaced him with the 31-year-old Markakis. They then signed on to Markakis for his age 32-35 seasons, just in time to witness what will likely be an age-induced decline.
Certainly, there are extenuating circumstances. Heyward was on the last year of his contract, and the team obviously didn't feel they could sign him - or wanted to sign him - to an extension. But they did not replace him with a better player. In fact, a 2-win player is generally regarded as a league-average player, which is essentially what Markakis has become.
In Markakis' first three years, he hit 16, 23, and 20 home runs, put up an fWAR of 2.1, 4.3, and 6.1, and looked like a franchise player. But he has never put up an fWAR higher than 2.5 in any season since 2009 and hasn't cleared more than 18 homers since the '09 season.
The signing of Markakis also appears to assure that the team will move Justin Upton, who is on the last year of his deal as well, or Gattis, who is more of an American League DH-type of player. In a perfect world, Atlanta would love to move B.J. Upton, but his contract and lack of productivity at the plate makes that almost impossible.
As for Baltimore, they lose a player that had been with them since 2006 and is the second major player they've lost this off-season, having watched Nelson Cruz sign with the Seattle Mariners. Baltimore could turn to free agents Melky Cabrera, Colby Rasmus, Alex Rios, or Mike Morse. They could pursue trades for the Uptons, Gattis, Marlon Byrd, Matt Kemp, or perhaps even Dexter Fowler.
Nick Markakis isn't a bad player. He's a league-average player who can probably help the Braves at the top of their lineup. And even though he is 31, Atlanta has him at just over $11 million a season through his early 30s, so they aren't signing a dinosaur here.
But at the end of the day, the player who will be playing right field for Atlanta next year will be one who is six years older, has less offensive upside, and isn't as good a defender as the one who played their last year.
It's hard to see how that's an upgrade.