Keeping Markakis on the cheap buys the Braves time

Re-upping Nick Markakis was a good deal, which isn't necessarily the same as being a good move. On the one hand, the Braves kept an All-Star right fielder for 36 percent of what he made last season. On the other, nearly all of Markakis' good work last season came before the All-Star game, and he turned 35 in November.

If you like Markakis, which many Braves fans seem to do, you're happy today. If you're the skeptical sort who views his Braves' body of work – four seasons with an aggregate FanGraphs WAR of 5.7, 2.6 of which came last season – as less that stellar, you're less enthused. Keeping him doesn't make this team better than it was last season; it does quash any notion of Adam Duvall as an opening-day starter.

Back to last season. Markakis made his first All-Star team in the final year of a contract that paid him $44 million over four years. For 3-1/2 months, he was better than he'd been as a Brave. (Which, not to be cruel, wasn't saying all that much.) From mid-July on, he was worse than he'd been over those three full middling seasons. His post-ASG slash line was .258/.332/.369. He was no factor in the NLDS, going 1-for-12 with no RBIs.

If you’re wondering how an All-Star outfielder who made $11 million last season could sign for $4 million – there’s a club option for $6 million next season with a buyout of $2 mil – there’s your answer. Nobody in baseball considers Markakis a difference-maker, not even the Braves, who were willing to let him leave. Turned out he had nowhere to go. The modest sum  invested in him going forward tells us the Braves regard him as a place-holder, though for whom isn’t clear. Cristian Pache? Johan Camargo?

The best that can be said is that the Braves have kept themselves from getting worse in right field. That said, they were 17th among the 30 MLB teams in right-field WAR last season, and that was with a half-year of Peak Nick. His re-signing did nothing to alter FanGraphs' projection for 2019. The Braves are still at 82 wins, still slotted third in the National League East – behind the Nationals and Mets, ahead of the Phillies and Marlins. And here's where I stop with the gloom and doom.

We've seen enough of Alex Anthopoulos these past 14 months to know he plays a long and subtle game. His splash move this offseason was to sign Josh Donaldson, a former MVP coming off his worst year since he was a rookie, for one season at $23 million. From 2013 through 2017, Donaldson was among baseball's 10 best position players. If he can return to health and approximate his former self, the Braves will have added that difference-maker. If he can't, he's free to leave.

Let's say Anthopoulos had chosen to sign A.J. Pollock to play right field. It has been reported that the former Diamondback is seeking $80 million. He's an excellent player when healthy, but he rarely is. That Pollock has signed with no team indicates that nobody is willing to invest in him long-term. We shouldn't fault the Braves for being among that number.

No, the Braves haven't upgraded in right field – unless you believe, as I do, that Camargo is apt to start 120 games in super-utility mode this season, with many of those coming in RF. Again going by FanGraphs WAR, Camargo was the Braves' fourth-best position player last season. (Markakis was sixth.) Donaldson will be the everyday third baseman, but Carmargo is going to play somewhere almost every day.

In the macro sense, sinking a maximum of $6 million into Markakis means Anthopoulos has left money under the mattress. The general manager could dangle some of that before Craig Kimbrel, the unsigned prodigal closer. (Caveat: Advanced analytics hold that spending big for closers is unwise, and AA is big on his AA, as it were.) Or Anthopoulos could take a late run at starter Dallas Keuchel, though that would surprise me. Or he could wait to pull another Anibal-Sanchez-off-the-scrap-heap move come March. Or he could go the watchful waiting route.

Anthopoulos said in July that he learned from time as Blue Jays' GM to leave money unspent for the trade deadline. Just with the players under contract, the Braves could open the season with a reasonable expectation of repeating as division champs. That wellspring of young talent hasn't gone dry. (Mike Soroka is a key man, and reports on his shoulder are promising.)

We say again: The Braves didn’t need to win this offseason. Signing Donaldson could well have been all that was required, and keeping Markakis is the equivalent of a term-life insurance policy in right field. Having him on the roster doesn’t make the Braves appreciably better, but they probably have enough everywhere else that they don’t need to be, at least not yet.

To these eyes, they again look good enough to win the East. At issue – and this is a topic for another day – is whether they’re good enough to win 11 games come October.

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