For once in what seems like nearly a decade now, the Braves finally have a plan. From the minute the Jason Heyward trade broke, it was evident that the Braves were setting up a series of moves with a larger goal on the horizon. Yesterday’s signing of Nick Markakis refortified that plan, and when they inevitably trade Justin Upton for cost-controlled talent, the blueprint will become even clearer. The Braves are punting any chances of contending in 2015 in order to accrue as much cheap, young, and controllable talent as possible for the next few years.
As soon as the news broke that the Braves had signed Nick Markakis to a four-year, $44 million deal last night, the Braves took a beating on social media. Trading a five-win outfielder only to sign a declining outfielder to a four-year deal as a replacement seemed quite counter-intuitive on the face of things. However, the Braves’ plan is far more sensible if you take a step back and look at things from the Braves front office’s viewpoint.
The Nationals won 96 games last year and will be returning nearly their entire core. They’re the clear favorites to win the NL East handily for the second consecutive year. However, after the 2015 season, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Ian Desmond, Denard Span, Craig Stammen, and Tyler Clippard will all hit free agency. The Nationals window of contention seems to have a year left before their core will likely disassemble. But teams cannot base their roster construction solely on the forecast of one division competitor; they must consider their own placement on the win curve.
The Braves won 79 games in 2014, overachieving by about three wins according to Pythagorean expectation. When John Hart took over the reins of the club, he was faced with nearly a 20-win gap in terms of true talent to attempt to win the division and a 12-14-win gap to secure a wild card berth. Faced with a roster highlighted by two outfielders who will become free agents after the 2015 season, it would’ve been almost completely nonsensical for Hart to go all-in for a shot at a wild card berth. Instead, the Braves are using a long-term view.
It was quite apparent to the Braves that Upton and Heyward were steadfast on testing free agency, both likely looking for nine-figure deals. Both outfielders would be far less valuable to a non-contender like the Braves than players who were under team control for the foreseeable future. With little shot of retention, the Braves cashed Heyward in for four years of Shelby Miller and another six years of Tyrell Jenkins. They will almost inevitably do the same with Justin Upton by the end of this month. Upton and Heyward offer little value to what seems like Hart’s four-year view. Instead, he’s focused on accumulating as much talent as possible that will help Atlanta compete from 2016-2020.
Coinciding with this window is the opening of their new ballpark, SunTrust Park, in 2017. With Craig Kimbrel, Evan Gattis, and Chris Johnson signed through 2018, Andrelton Simmons and Julio Teheran through 2020, and Freddie Freeman through 2021, the Braves already have quite a formidable core. With Shelby Miller and another piece such as Taijuan Walker, the Braves are one of the most talented teams in the league with a core locked up for the next five years moving into a new and more profitable stadium.
Enter Nick Markakis. Since they don’t seem to have any plans to contend in 2015, they’re essentially acquiring Markakis’ 2016-2018 seasons while paying him merely to exist in 2015. Assuming a constant annual average value, they’ll be paying Markakis $11 million per year from 2016-2018. ZiPS projects Markakis to post a total of 2.9 WAR throughout his four years in Atlanta, with 1.7 of those wins coming from 2016-2018. While it’s looking increasingly likely that the price of a win has soared to around $10 million this offseason, it’s unlikely any plausible figure would justify Markakis’ declining production.
Since I’ve posited that the Braves are acquiring Markakis to help them win from 2016-2018, the next step is determining whether the Braves would sign Markakis to a three-year deal worth $33 million a year from now. ZiPS projects Markakis to produce a 1.2 WAR in 2015, so we’d be looking at a 32-year old outfielder coming off a one win season. The farthest you have to look back to find a comparable case is last offseason, when the Mets signed OF Curtis Granderson to a four-year deal worth $60 million after posting a 1.4 fWAR. Granted, Granderson’s 2013 consisted of only 245 PA; however, he had posted a 2.2 fWAR in a full 2012. The Red Sox rewarded Shane Victorino’s 2.9 fWAR with a three-year deal worth $39 million going into his age-33 season in 2012. Cuddyer got a three-year deal worth $31 million coming off of a 2.6 fWAR season in 2011. In each of the past three offseasons, the market has paid outfielders well into their decline handsomely.
With rising dollars per win calculations, the proposition that Markakis could find a three-year, $33 million contract next season is not a stretch. Still, the odds are stacked against Markakis producing enough value in 2015 that would justify a three-year deal in his age 32-34 seasons. There will be affordable options such as Dexter Fowler and Matt Joyce on the market next offseason, both assuredly better investments than Markakis at his age. However, waiting on next year’s free agent crop is a risky proposition, and both will likely command more than Markakis. Moreover, the Braves will likely be accruing enough surplus value from their aforementioned core to sink some money into a role player such as Markakis.
Truth be told, it’s hard to argue that Markakis will produce enough value over the next four years to pay him an AAV of around 10% of the team’s payroll. There’s little chance Markakis provides enough value to justify either the length or amount of money spent. If the Braves are looking to add assets to make a run starting in 2016, they were probably better off waiting until next year to sign an outfielder. However, Atlanta’s scouts and analysts must believe that Markakis’ steady production can persist until at least his age-34 season.
More importantly, the Braves have a plan. So far, they’ve added a middle of the rotation pitcher controllable for the next four years and another who projects similarly. In the addition of Markakis, the Braves have a role player for their run at the NL East timeline. With stars Andrelton Simmons and Freddie Freeman under control for the considerable future, John Hart is rounding out a roster that is going to be a perpetual contender in the latter half of this decade. Markakis is expensive and will likely struggle to keep his head above replacement level by the end of his contract. Projections may forecast an ugly ending to this contract, and the Braves may have just lost a net four wins in right field. However, he’s just another part of the plan.
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All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs. Thanks to Dan Szymborski for the adjusted ZiPS projections.
Daniel Schoenfeld is a freshman at Colby College. He can be found on Twitter at @DanielSchoe.