The Braves and Nick Markakis


The Atlanta Braves signed Nick Markakis Wednesday to be their right fielder for the next four years, and perhaps nothing better symbolizes their current status, or lack thereof.

Last month they traded Jason Heyward, who they once thought had Hall of Fame stuff. This month they signed Markakis, who one tweeter called the “Greek God of Replacement Level Mediocrity.”

Fourteen months ago the Braves were the third-winningest team in baseball (tied) and eight months ago they were lauded for signing up their young nucleus.

Since then they finished under .500, fired the general manager who was being fawned over and dealt Heyward because they apparently can’t afford him.

Today the Braves are behind the Mets on the NL East register (forget about the Nationals); even the Phillies, by remaining idle, are gaining.

There hasn’t been a decline so precipitous in Atlanta since Hood’s army attacked Sherman’s 150 years ago. (For the record, General John B. Hood of Texas graduated 44th out of a class of 52 at West Point, and then proved that was probably too high in 1864, repeatedly attacking a superior force. An avid poker player, Hood would bet large sums of money with “nary a pair in his hand,” according to the book The Enduring Vision. He lost the use of one arm at Gettysburg, and presumably, lots of poker pots, his card-playing strategy being something akin to the Braves’ approach to free agency in signing Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton with not enough cash in reserve).

Markakis might be a replacement for Heyward, but he’s not an improvement, not by the enormity of the potential the Braves must think Heyward is wasting. The best thing about the Markakis signing is that it deflected attention away from the addition of Jim Johnson (7.09 2014 ERA) to the bullpen.

A wire service story announcing Markakis’ signing said he had hit at least 10 home runs and 24 doubles in each of his nine seasons. Talk about lowering the bar. Henry Aaron once played right field for the Braves and had 10 home runs and 24 doubles every year, too. Usually by July.

Markakis may not even measure up anymore to Claudell Washington, whose big free-agent contract in 1981 prompted the Carpenter family to sell the Phillies because those kinds of salaries weren’t good for business. Of course Washington never made as much as a million dollars in a single season, and didn’t earn in six seasons with the Braves what Markakis will by the All-Star break.

If only Markakis’ production was inflated instead of his salary. He hasn’t hit .290 since 2012, 20 homers since 2008 or walked 70 times since 2010. His OPS has never reached .900, and he’s never slugged .500, even in the hitters-friendly zone of Camden Yards (seventh-best for offense from 2010-13, according to parkfactors.com, though it apparently slipped in 2014). In the last two years his OPS has topped .700 just once, and not by much.

Markakis’ best season was 2008, when he hit .306, slugged .491 and walked 99 times for a .406 on-base percentage. He accumulated 7.4 of WAR in 2008; in the six seasons since, he’s added just 11.2, or 1.85 per season, including a -0.3 in 2013, which is where the 10-home run, 24-double threshold derives from.

There’s about as much chance of Markakis improving on that in ages 31-34, the first two in Turner Field, as there was for Hood’s assault on Sherman to succeed.

It’s a confusing time to be a fan of the Braves, whose series of moves over the last few months seems illogical. The team fired the GM (Frank Wren) who traded for Justin Upton, then replaced him with one of the members of the search committee (John Hart, the only GM to lose a World Series to the Braves), so he could trade the previous GM’s prize acquisition. And maybe even Evan Gattis.

Little-noticed, the Braves sent second baseman Tommy La Stella to the Cubs to reacquire reliever Arodys Vizcaino, who Wren traded away, and apparently will replace La Stella with Phil Gosselin because of the latter’s superior defense. Hopefully it makes up for the 76-point difference in their career minor-league on-base percentage (La Stella’s .407 to Gosselin’s .331).

And the Braves dealt Heyward, whose 24.5 career WAR in five seasons is just fractions less than Markakis’ 25.2 in nine, even as Heyward ages into his prime at 25, and Markakis ages out.

The Braves felt they had to, given that Heyward will be a free agent after next season and that he has underdeveloped offensively (nearly a third of his WAR value is on defense).

The team has a point, but you have to wonder if they would have felt as compelled to deal Heyward if they hadn’t extended third baseman Chris Johnson ($23.5 million for the next three seasons to a -1.3 third baseman in 2014 with 23 walks and 159 strikeouts) or committed quite so quickly to shortstop Andrelton Simmons (who, like Heyward, is 25 and has regressed offensively after a solid rookie season; his .617 OPS last season was overcome only with a lot of defense).

Would the Braves rather be paying Freddie Freeman $20 million a year in 2017 or Heyward? Could they have retained Heyward for that amount?

I’m not sure either. But I would rather have found out than pay Nick Markakis for the next four seasons.

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