Free agent Markakis could be good fit for Braves

Nick Markakis is six years older than Jason Heyward, was never as fast as Heyward, and isn’t as spectacular afield as J-Hey, the right fielder traded away by the Braves two weeks ago.

The Braves are pursuing free agent Nick Markakis, who could be a good fit for them in right field. (AP photo)

But there are several reasons that the Braves think Markakis, 31, a free agent after nine seasons with Baltimore, could be a very good replacement for Heyward, and why they sent manager Fredi Gonalez and assistant GM John Coppolella to Baltimore on Monday night to take Markakis to dinner and let the Woodstock (Ga.) High School graduate and former Young Harris College star know they’re serious suitors.

(BTW, Fredi’s Marietta home isn’t far from where Markakis lived in Woodstock after his family moved from New York state when he was a kid. Not that anyone cares, but I thought I'd point that out. So I did.)

While Markakis has never hit more than 23 homers in a season (Heyward did once, 27 homers in 2012) and has only 61 stolen bases in nine seasons (compared to J-Hey's 63 steals in five), and while he’s never been the kind of elite defender to lead the majors in Defensive Runs Saved (as Heyward did in 2014), in a few ways this .290 career hitter with the .358 career OBP is comparable and even more appealing than Heyward. Now stop rolling your eyes and let me explain.

Markakis is steadier and has been a lot more durable – 155 or more games in seven of the past eight seasons, including 160 or more in four of the past six -- and would likely be far, far cheaper to sign for the next four or five years than Heyward, whose speed, marvelous defense, still-there offensive upside and darling status among the sabermetric crowd could help persuade a team to offer big dough –as in, a nine-digit, long-term contract – that folks think he'll seek in free agency next winter.

Markakis? Projections called for him to get something along the lines of four years and $48-50 million as a free agent. Although with interest heating up among the Braves, Giants, Blue Jays and possibly other teams, that figure could rise. So far no one seems ready to rule out the Orioles, who bought out his $17.5 million option for 2015 and had hopes of re-signing him to a multi-year deal worth $10 million to $12 million annually. (That was before other teams let their interest be known.)

Because he didn’t have a qualifying offer from the Orioles, Markakis won’t cost a signing team a compensatory draft pick if he leaves Baltimore. Plenty of Orioles fans would hate to see him go, because even if his numbers have declined a bit in the past couple of seasons – from a .298 average and .834 OPS in 2012 to .271/.685 in 2013 and .276/.729 in 2014 – he’s still beloved in Baltimore and a favorite of owner Peter Angelos (they share Greek ancestry) and others in the front office. And still good.

Did we mention that Markakis has a .294 average and .353 in 982 career at-bats as a leadoff hitter? No, it's not his best spot in the lineup, but it's where he spent almost the entire 2014 season, batting .274 with a .339 OBP and 13 homers in 617 leadoff ABs.

In three seasons from 2011 through 2013, Markakis hit .283 with a .346 OBP, 83 doubles, 38 homers and 186 RBIs, including .329 with a .375 OBP in 365 at-bats in the leadoff spot during that span.

The Orioles and Markakis were engaged in contract negotiations as recently as the GM meetings last month in Arizona, but those came to a standstill by late November. Maybe the Orioles will raise their offer and keep him now that other teams are calling. Or, maybe now that he sees how much he’s wanted elsewhere – including in Atlanta; he still has a home in the area – perhaps he’ll be tempted to leave if the price and situation are right.

Do the Braves have a team that could be a contender soon enough to persuade Markakis, who endured a lot of lean years in Baltimore, to leave just when the Orioles are back to being a serious player in the AL East? Unlike the Braves, the World Series champion Giants or resurgent Blue Jays shouldn’t have much difficulty convincing Markakis they are ready to be championship contenders in 2015.

If the Braves could get him, they’d fill the big shoes left by Heyward in right field, and might also make it easier for baseball operations prez John Hart to pull the trigger on a trade for slugging left fielder Justin Upton, whose right-handed power is highly sought and could bring back multiple young players in a trade -- including perhaps another young, major league-ready starting pitcher or starting-pitcher prospect.

The Braves would rather trade Justin Upton, a free-agent-to-be after 201t5, than Evan Gattis, no question about that. Gattis is their other highly sough right-handed slugger has four years of contractual control and will be dirt-cheap in 2015 and still affordable for at least another year or two beyond that, depending on how many homers and RBIs he piles up in the interim.

The Braves think they can move Gattis from behind the plate to left field next season, and that with a full spring to work at the position he would be at least functional enough to cost them defensively only a fraction of the runs that he could drive in. Of course, if they could get a team like Houston – they’ve tried with the Astros – to take center fielder B.J. Upton and chunk of the $46 million he’s owed in 2015-2017 as part of a deal for Gattis, the Braves would likely bite the bullet and say goodbye to El Oso Blanco. But that still seems unlikely, given the sound of crickets they hear when the Braves try to find another team willing to take B.J.

The thought of an outfield of B.J. Upton – who’s also been a defensive disappointment, though nowhere near the offensive disaster he’s been – flanked by Justin Upton in right and Evan Gattis in left is enough to make some folks cringe. Defensive WAR could get bloody in that scenario.

But Markakis in right field and whomever in left has much more appeal defensively. He’s not a defensive wonder, but very solid. Most teams view Markakis as an average to plus-level defender, and in 2014 he won his second Gold Glove in four seasons -- a direct indication of how he’s perceived by opposing coaches and managers.

And did we mention that this is a left-handed hitter who hits for a high average against lefties and righties? Markakis batted .280 with a .343 OBP against lefties and  .274/.342 vs. righties in 2014, and has a .288 career average vs. lefties and .291 vs. righties.

In addition to solid defense and steady offensive production, he's known for providing the kind of clubhouse presence and veteran leadership that Hart and the Braves want to add to their mix.

As for steady, consider the following: Markakis has hit above .290 in six of his nine seasons including most recently in 2012 (.298). He’s totaled between 13 and 18 homers in five of nine seasons, and in his other four years he totaled, 10, 12, 20 and 23. Markakis has driven in at least 50 runs every season and twice had more than 100 RBIs.

He scored 81 and 89 runs the past two seasons – the Braves had one player with as many as 80 runs in 2014 – and has at least 24 doubles in nine consecutive seasons. Oh, and he hasn’t struck out 100 times in a season since 2008.

Markakis struck out 84 times in 2014, which were his most K’s in the past four seasons, but would have ranked just seventh on a whifftastic Braves team that had four players with at least 145 strikeouts and the Uptons with more than 170 apiece.

No, he’s not J-Hey. But Markakis might be just what these Braves need right now in right field.

• Let's close this with this one from the great Tony Joe White, doing a tune by songwriting masters Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham.

Tony Joe White

Down at the railroad station

My suitcase sittin' by my side

Got no high hopes of leaving

I'm just watching the trains go by

Papa's working at the coal mines

Mama's lying sick in bed

They'd be better off without me

One less mouth to be fed

Younger brother John is in the jailhouse

Down on the work farm chopping wood

I stayed around and tried to change him

Don't look like it done no good.Down at the railroad station

My suitcase sittin' by my side

Got no high hopes of ever leaving

I'm just watching the trains go by

Lawyer Jacob's wife, she is expecting

And he wonders how in blazes

How his wife could come to blame now,

they tried so many times before

Down at the railroad station

My suitcase settin' by my side

Got no high hopes of leaving

I'm just watching the trains go by

Watching the trains go by.

Walking back down this dusty farm road

My thirsty mind is high and dry

One more day down at the station

Watching the trains go by.


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About the Author

David O'Brien
David O'Brien
David O'Brien covered the Atlanta Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for more than a decade.