So, the Braves signed Georgia boy Nick Markakis — he went to high school in Woodstock — for four years, $44 million. On its face, I don’t like this deal. On reflection, I don’t like this deal. On a bit more reflection, I’m basically ambivalent.
If you were an Orioles fan, Nick Markakis would have been a massive disappointment to you. The seventh overall pick in the 2003 draft, he debuted in 2006 as something pretty close to the guy he is now: 147 games played, 542 PA, .291/.351/.448 with 16 homers, 2.5 rWAR. He was 22 years old. Then, at 23, he picked up to 23 homers and 4.2 WAR, and at 24, he had the best season of his life, hitting .306 with good defense and accruing 7.4 WAR. But like Carlos Baerga, it turned out that he peaked at 24.
Since then, he’s basically been a two-win player every year (except for a terrible, injury-plagued 2013), with negative defensive marks (good arm, bad range), a good batting average and OBP, and somewhere between 10 and 15 homers. His defense isn’t great but it won’t kill you, his offense isn’t great but in this context it’s above-average, and he stays on the field which gives him positional value.
The free agent math to get to his contract basically goes like this: if you assume that he will be a 2.0 win player in 2015 and 2016, that in the subsequent two years he will lose an average of 0.5 WAR a year due to aging, injuries, and so on, and that it costs $7 million to buy a win on the open market, then:
Year 1: 2.0 * 7 = $14 million
Year 2: 2.0 * 7 = $14 million
Year 3: 1.5 * 7 = $10.5 million
Year 4: 1.0 * 7 = $7 million
Total: $45.5 million
Those are pretty aggressive assumptions, but that’s basically how you get to the number they paid.
There are basically two pressing questions. First, what is his true power? And second, given that he plateaued in his early 20s, is he due for a massive crash in his early 30s (like, say, B.J. Upton)?
The power question is partly tied to his wrist. He had hamate surgery in 2012, and his power has plummeted in the years since: .159 ISO before surgery, .098 ISO after. If you believe that he’ll get some of his power back, then he could be a value buy, but hamates are no joke, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll ever slug .470 again, as he did in 2012. Still, if he can get back to .440, that would be a big help.
The second question is harder to answer, but it’s worth looking at his similarity scores on on baseball-reference. This contract will pay him until he’s 34, and seven of his top ten most similar hitters were out of the league by 35. That isn’t determinate, but it’s a serious concern.
So: why am I anything other than deeply negative about this deal? First, I’ll point to David Lee’s article in the Augusta Chronicle and Martin Gandy’s blog post; both are smart, serious followers of the Braves and they offer much more full-throated defenses than I’m about to. But it basically boils down to this: the Braves badly need warm bodies, and this free agent market is absolutely insane, as evidenced by the $30 million deal given to Billy Butler, an iffy 28-year-old hitter who can’t play defense, or the $57 million deal given to Nelson Cruz, a 34-year old whose low OBP and indifferent defense offset his substantial power. Or, for that matter, the $3.8 million that the Athletics gave Ike Davis, who is the literal definition of a replacement-level player.
Given the scarcity of even average hitters and the Braves’ desperate need for one, Markakis fits the bill. The Braves’ upper minors are a wasteland, which means that league-average players are worth more to the Braves than they are to many other teams, and the Braves are paying this league-average player less per win than those other teams are paying the players that they got. Markakis doesn’t have a lot of upside beyond the player he is now, but if he’s able to remain this player for two more years (per the assumptions above), he’ll be worth this contract and well worth the gamble. That may not be the likeliest-case scenario, but it also may have been the Braves’ best option to fill a major hole in their roster without creating an even bigger hole elsewhere.