The Braves are preparing for a busy winter, with two key free agents creating a critical subplot.
Outfielder Nick Markakis and catcher Kurt Suzuki are set to explore the market. Both played a pivotal role in the team’s turnaround, on and off the field, and both add intangibles to a young team mostly lacking veteran position players outside Freddie Freeman, Ender Inciarte and Tyler Flowers.
“You don’t know what opportunities are available,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said. “You don’t want to force a move. We know we have certain areas we have to fill. Our right fielder is a free agent. We need to go get a right fielder or left fielder. We are short a starting outfielder right now. And we don’t have anyone to pair (at catcher) with Flow. So those are two obvious areas we can’t necessarily fill internally. We’re not prepared to. Beyond that, we’re going to look to upgrade in a lot of areas.”
Markakis, who will turn 35 next month, put together his first All-Star campaign in 2018. He cooled after the first two months of the season, finishing .297/.366/.440 while starting all 162 games.
When leadership was needed, Markakis was there. He served as the clubhouse anchor. His teammates lauded him. Coaches loved him. Behind the scenes, few played a larger role in the Braves’ run to 90 wins than the now free agent.
Suzuki experienced an offensive renaissance in Atlanta. He hit .276 with 31 homers and 100 RBIs over the past two seasons, all while splitting time with Flowers. The Braves felt they essentially had one All-Star catcher with the Suzuki-Flowers combination.
“We’ll see if I’m in their plans,” Suzuki said after the Braves were eliminated. “If I am in their plans, hopefully they make something happen.”
The Braves extended Flowers’ contract during the season, though with no assurances of playing time or at-bats. They won’t rule out pursuing a full-time catcher, such as Miami’s J.T. Realmuto, which would relegate Flowers to a more traditional back-up role.
Bringing back Suzuki, or another part-time catcher, is a suitable route. Manager Brian Snitker could continue using split-catchers while prospect William Contreras, 20, develops in the minors.
In Markakis’ case, the team might seek a younger option before re-signing him to what surely would be a one-or-two-year deal. But his intangible value cannot be overlooked, and letting him walk without acquiring a substantial upgrade is a risky dice roll.
Maybe the Braves opt for a free-agent outfielder such as Arizona’s A.J. Pollock, who will turns 31 in December. More likely, the team could push in some of its pitching prospects for an every-day outfielder.
They’re willing to add a left fielder and shift Ronald Acuna to right. Inciarte will continue manning center. On that note, if the Diamondbacks’ rumored fire sale commences, left fielder David Peralta - and his 30 homers - would be an excellent fit.
Suzuki and Markakis are important dominoes. It’s unclear if they’re priorities or fallbacks. If the latter, the team has to be careful not to have them scooped up and be left empty-handed.
There’s no indication of where they stand in the organization’s plans.
“They’re great in the clubhouse,” Anthopoulos said. “They’ve done great things for us during the year. Will we line up on terms and dollars – I don’t know yet. Obviously we haven’t up to this point. That doesn’t mean that we won’t. We like both guys. They’re both key parts of this team.
“It could very well be both guys are back. We have interest in both guys. We like both guys. I just can’t tell you today the likelihood of where those negotiations are going to go. … We’re open-minded to having them back.”
Anthopoulos didn’t reveal if the team had negotiated with either player to this point. The front office is very tight-lipped on discussions for several reasons, and there’s no benefit to comment on negotiations at this stage.