Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Let's Rationalize Nick Markakis

In an offseason of rebuilding that has sent young veterans packing for prospects, John Hart has done a nice job rebuilding a farm system on a fly while improving the financial freedom of the organization to re-enter the free agent market to supplement the youth when the time calls for it. It's been a marvel that has turned the system from barren to envious in less than six short months.

Yet there has been a few questionable moves. Well, really only one, but you could question the two year pact given to new closer Jason Grilli, but that would be nit-picking. No, the only move that still confuses even the most knowledgeable of commentators was the four-year, $44M contract the Braves gave Nick Markakis to come home to Georgia.

At the time the deal was signed, I wrote about the signing with this ending thought. "My biggest worry this offseason was that the front office would half-ass a rebuild rather than full-ass." As we would find out, the Braves ultimately did full-ass a rebuild, which was the right call if you felt they needed to rebuild at all. But the signing of Markakis continues to stick out like a sore thumb. By the way, I do realize the odd timing of this article when Markakis went 1-for-4 yesterday with a steal and both RBIs to help the Braves win, but that does not alter what remains the bigger underlying question. Why are the Braves paying him so much for so long considering he's entering his age-31 season and they most certainly are rebooting the franchise?

I've thought about this for quite awhile and here's the only reasoning I can suggest...

1) The Braves felt Markakis was the model ballplayer.

He doesn't strike out. He puts the ball in play. Orioles players were distraught when he left Baltimore so he's got leadership skills and good character. Markakis was the type of player that Atlanta wants their young guys to become. The gritty, balls-to-the-wall player who leaves it all on the field. It's this kind of David Eckstein-ish behavior that wins games...theoretically.

On the other hand, the reason why players like Markakis have to be so gritty and all heart is because they have to squeeze every last bit of talent out to even be the complimentary baseball player that Markakis actually is. Markakis has been around a two-win player since 2008. That's useful, but not unusual. Over the last five years, there have been 482 instances of a position player finishing the year with 2 fWAR or higher. Simple math suggests close to hundred players each year are just as valuable as Markakis typically is and often, more valuable. Not all of them are sniffing $44M. And that's not even getting into finding 2 wins in the aggregate via a platoon or whatever the hell a "soft platoon" is.

But Atlanta seemed to either not agree with that assessment or believed, as I said before, that Markakis's intangibles made him the model ballplayer they wanted to seek out.

2) Atlanta bought into their own hype.

There are many fans, especially in the wake of the Craig Kimbrel trade, who are upset about a front office that lied to them regarding Kimbrel's availability. He was untouchable, they pointed out and there are plenty of links to suggest that, yes, Kimbrel was supposedly part of the core that was safe from the offseason of change.

Another line that Hart and Company and thrown around is that the Braves believe they can compete in 2015. This seems ridiculous on the service, though anything can happen, but Hart spoke of a "parallel" vision of building for the future while also attempting to compete in 2015. Remember when I said I worried that the Braves would half-ass a rebuild? Lines like that bothered me to no end.

Trading Kimbrel changed that. The Braves were effectively waiving the white flag on the 2015 season, acknowledging what seemed apparent when they found new homes for Justin Upton and Evan Gattis. But when they signed Markakis, Upton and Gattis, along with Kimbrel, were still on the team. People made a reasonable comparison between Markakis and Jason Heyward, who had already been dealt, and suggested that the Braves got a poor man's Heyward (for $44M), Shelby Miller, and an intriguing prospect in Tyrell Jenkins and avoided Heyward leaving via free agency. It seemed like a reasonable exchange that could even benefit the Braves both in 2015 and in the long run. After all, they were trying to woo Jon Lester if you believe that their interest was as significant as the AJC tried to suggest that it was.

Maybe, at the time, the Braves felt they could still build a team that would compete in 2015 and still build toward the future. We may never know what they originally sought for Upton, but they may have also been seeking major league-ready players (beyond Jace Peterson, of course). They shopped the pieces that didn't fit what they wanted their offense to be and tried to acquire talent that could help the 2015 squad, but teams balked at giving up a solid haul with major league talent for a soon-to-be-free agent like Upton or a defensive question mark like Gattis. The Braves could have painted themselves into a corner and accepted their fate. Rebuild with prospects and deal with the consequences.

3) They got to spend the money anyway

When you are part of a department of any huge entity, whether it be government or a corporation, you have to utilize every cent of the payroll you have been given or risk losing it in the future. Atlanta may have figured that a rebuild would have lasted at least two years - probably more - and the Braves still needed to carry a reasonable close payroll to previous years regardless of the moves that they made to build the franchise up. Adding another big contract to the mix like Markakis was a reasonable exercise to field team with a comparable payroll to recent years.

Of course, Atlanta could not have foreseen the willingness of an organization like San Diego to take on every cent owed to Melvin Upton Jr., which would have a significant affect on their payroll. Either way, the Braves have a payroll and needed to spend some of it. Why not add a high character guy like Markakis on a deal that may run its course by the time the Braves are able to compete?

Conclusion

There is no real conclusion, sadly. Unless John Hart wants to pen Built to Win 2: How I Became Public Enemy #1 in Atlanta, why the Braves ultimately went down the road they did while also adding Markakis is simply subjective guessing. In the mean time, signing Markakis will continue to look inconsistent compared to the the winter (and spring) of change. Also in the mean time, the Braves gave Markakis a reasonable amount of money for his services and at least give the Braves a competent major league bat in a lineup that may not have many. We can quibble about the years and the context and we most certainly will. By this time the deal is coming into the fourth year, the Braves may pay someone to take Markakis like they did with Derek Lowe.

But for now, he is unquestionably a pretty good fit for the Braves offense. So, there's that.

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