Despite capturing the 2018 National League East title, the Atlanta Braves entered the off-season with several holes to fill. With division rivals Philadelphia Phillies committed to making improvements, and the New York Mets striking early during the hot-stove season to make themselves more formidable, the Braves had to make some moves to stay ahead of the pack.
Signing Josh Donaldson brings a power bat to the lineup. Meanwhile, Brian McCann solidifies things behind the plate and will be a steady influence on a young pitching staff. Despite these moves, the Braves still had a hole in the outfield.
General Manager Alex Anthopoulos’ philosophy, and ownership’s tight budget strings mean that making a serious run at Bryce Harper is highly unlikely. Early in the off-season, Anthopoulos seemed to squash that idea when he said, “There’s the obvious big names at the top, but I don’t know, for our club, with what we have, that the value’s going to be there in the free agent market.“
Nick Markakis Return a Good Fit
Big name free agents Michael Brantley, A.J. Pollock, and Andrew McCutchen all signed elsewhere. The Braves were still able to land a Gold Glove, corner outfielder by inking Markakis to a one-year deal.
Nick Markakis: "I think the sticking point was my kids. I asked them where they wanted Dad to be, and they all said Braves. How could I say no to that?" pic.twitter.com/hcrCV5SC2D
— FOX Sports: Braves (@FOXSportsBraves) January 23, 2019
Under virtually any other circumstances, any fan base would be clamoring with excitement over such a signing. However, a quick scroll through Braves’ related social media suggests more angst than excitement from the majority of fans. Why? The biggest difference between the other signings and the Braves bringing back Markakis is that he played for the Braves last season. He lacks the exciting, perceived high ceiling that a new player often brings.
Markakis certainly is not a sexy signing, but he is a very practical one given the current baseball landscape in Atlanta. Many pundits picked the Braves to take a step forward last season. Few were bold enough to call for them to win the pennant a year (or two) ahead of schedule. With a nucleus of rising, young talent, Markakis will continue to be a veteran presence in the locker room without breaking the bank. The team friendly one-year, $4-million deal has a club option for $6 million in 2020. That reasonable price tag will allow the Braves to also consider signing another bullpen arm in spring training.
Should Markakis fail to produce, the Braves still have the flexibility to make an in season move or relegate Markakis to be a late inning defensive replacement.
Second Half Slump or Market Correction?
Many Braves fans point to the sharp decline Markakis suffered in the second half of last season as a reason to move on. A closer look suggests that the extraordinary early season production was as much an outlier as the drop off. In the first two months of the season, Markakis hit everything and registered a robust .333 batting average. He also scored 34 runs and drove in 38. That two month stretch easily was Markakis’ best as a Brave, but as the temperatures heated up, Markakis cooled down.
When many fans checked back in during the pennant race stretch run, Markakis found himself in a two-month slump. In August and September, he only batted only .255. His runs and RBIs both dipped by nearly thirty percent too.
Markakis has been a dependable starter his entire career, but expecting him to maintain his early 2018 pace is unreasonable. While the late season dip is not the type of performance a pennant contender can tolerate from a middle of the lineup hitter, his performance over the middle two months last season is a more realistic expectation. June and July saw Markakis bat .301 with strong run production. Despite his late season fade, he still posted his best WAR for the season as a member of the Braves.
Markakis lacks prototypical outfielder power numbers, but plays excellent defense, and can comfortably bat at several different lineup spots. The foresight of Atlanta’s front office to wait out the market and re-sign a player that they are familiar with should set the team up for success this season. The move also gives them flexibility to wait on their young talent to develop with another season in the minor leagues. No one will confuse the move with signing Bryce Harper. When compared to other outfielder signings, the Braves look like winners with a proven, high-floor player.
Embed from Getty Images