By signing Nick Markakis, Braves hope he can replace Jason Heyward
The Braves have found their replacement for Jason Heyward, coming to terms with long-time Orioles rightfielder Nick Markakis on a four-year, $44 million contract. Markakis is the second member of the Orioles' 2014 outfield to sign with another team this week, following Nelson Cruz, who signed a four-year, $58 million deal with the Mariners on Monday. However, while those departures leave a big hole in the Orioles' lineup, Markakis, who turned 31 in November, is unlikely to fill the hole Heyward left in the Braves' lineup.
The seventh overall pick in the 2003 draft, Markakis was a top prospect who impressed as a 22-year-old rookie in 2006 and appeared to blossom into a star in his age-23 and -24 seasons. He hit 23 home runs with 112 RBI and 18 stolen bases in the former and .306/.406/.491 (136 OPS+) with 48 doubles and 106 runs scored in the latter. Those all remain career highs, however, as Markakis' production fell off after he signed a six-year, $66.1 million contract in January 2009, the $17.5 million option of which the Orioles declined in October.
Markakis' power numbers declined in three straight seasons in his mid-20s following his career-high slugging mark in 2008, and fell off even more after a spike in his injury-shortened 2012. Over the last two years, he has hit a combined .274/.335/.371 (97 OPS+) with 24 home runs in 1,410 plate appearances and an isolated slugging of .097. This is all while playing his home games in a ballpark that has been the most favorable in the American League for lefthanded home run hitters over the last three years, per the park factors in the Bill James Handbook.
It's likely the Braves see Markakis as a very similar player to Heyward, whom they traded to the Cardinals for Shelby Miller in November. Both won Gold Gloves in rightfield in 2014, and both have experienced a decline in power at the plate, resulting in superficially similar 2014 batting lines (Heyward: .271/.351/.384, 108 OPS+; Markakis .276/.342/.386, 107 OPS+). The comparison, however, is not a favorable one for Markakis.
Setting aside for the moment the fact that Markakis is six years older than Heyward, the advanced statistics strongly state that there is no comparison between the two in the field. Markakis has an outstanding throwing arm (he was a two-way player in high school, starring on the mound and at the plate), but Defensive Runs Saved say he was below average in rightfield in four of the last six seasons and exactly average in 2014. Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Against Average rated him as below average in the field every year from 2007 to 2012 and only slightly above since, and Ultimate Zone Rating had him below average every year from 2009 to 2013.
By comparison, Heyward grades out as one of the best fielders in baseball, regularly worth more than a win (ten runs) above average in the field according to all three measures. Markakis' best score under each system in the last six years has been 3 DRS (in 2011), 1.8 FRAA and 6.8 UZR (both last year). By comparison, Heyward's worst marks in the last four years have been 15 DRS, 3.0 FRAA and 11.1 UZR, all in 2011, his age-21 season. Last year, Heyward was 32 runs above average according to DRS, 26.4 per FRAA, and 24.1 per UZR. Defensive statistics are notoriously unreliable, but those figures are overwhelming and unanimous. Heyward is by far the better fielder, something which made his declining bat production more tolerable.
In Markakis, the Braves have signed a player who failed to outhit Heyward in either of the last two seasons and is markedly inferior in the field. That's a huge step backward even before you factor back in Markakis' age. For a team that finished 29th in the majors in runs scored in 2014, which the Braves did, any step backwards on offense could be crippling. It may be unlikely that the 31-year-old Markakis will outproduce the 25-year-old Heyward in 2015, but Markakis will clearly have a negative impact on the team's overall run differential relative to Heyward. That puts considerable pressure on the 24-year-old Miller to help make up the difference.
As for the contract, $11 million per season is not big money in this market, and the contract only goes through Markakis' age-34 season, so it's not a disaster. It could even make Markakis a compelling trade chip if he has another performance spike like 2012. The Braves owe B.J. Upton more money over the next three years ($46.35 million) than Markakis over the next four. On that level, this isn't a bad deal, but it's not clear that the 2015 Braves are a better team with Miller and Markakis — both of whom the Braves control for the next four years — than they were without Miller but with Heyward, who will be a free agent after the coming season. The Braves appear to be thinking long-term this offseason after posting a losing record in 2014.
The defending AL East champions in Baltimore, however, are clearly in need of outfielders after the departures of Cruz and Markakis. After All-Star centerfielder Adam Jones, the Orioles' current crop of outfielders is led by Alejandro De Aza and 2014 breakout player Steve Pearce, who will turn 32 in April. The Orioles have the $23 million they spent on Cruz and Markais in 2014 available to help improve their outfield corps, but the remaining free agents are a largely underwhelming group led by Melky Cabrera, Colby Rasmus, Alex Rios and former Oriole Mike Morse, who like Pearce is more of a first baseman/designated hitter.
Baltimore is said to be pursuing Morse as a replacement for the similarly skilled Cruz and has had thus-far unproductive talks with the Dodgers about Matt Kemp, but the market for everyday players is moving quickly. Having made no notable additions thus far this offseason, the time has come for the Orioles to act.