When the Braves traded Jason Heyward, it was nearly impossible to guess what their next steps would be. I wrote about three possibilities:
- Rebuilding completely
- Getting younger, still contending
- Going into all-in, win-now mode
In the first scenario, they would have dealt every player who wasn't young and locked up. In the second, they would have targeted players like Shelby Miller, who were cheap, under team control, and likely contributors for 2015. In the third, they would have made big offers to pitchers like Jon Lester and other premium free agents.
Nick Markakis fits ... in the third one, I guess? Certainly not the first two. This isn't a move for 2017; it's clearly a move for next season. There is no win-now move quite like a four-year deal to a solid, unspectacular 31-year-old outfielder. There's a chance that Markakis could age like Marlon Byrd, one of the players on his list of Baseball-Reference's similarity scores. There's also a chance that he could age like Gregg Jefferies, Shannon Stewart, and Edgardo Alfonzo -- other players on the list. Either way, he should still help a baseball team in 2015.
Just not, like, you know, as much as Jason Heyward.
That's the odd part of this deal. The Braves, who finished under .500 for just the third time in the last 24 years, are unquestionably worse than they were at the end of 2014. Unless you believe Miller is a huge, immediate improvement on Ervin Santana, the Braves have a weaker lineup and defense, and they had to commit long-term money to get there. They're clearly planning to trade Justin Upton, too, even if they can take their time. They might get back young pitchers or position players -- no one as good as Upton right away, but with the right mix of youth and potential. Which means the Braves will get worse again.
You can see the problem, here. The Braves were supposed to have a young outfield of baseball legend, and those dreams melted. They figured they would deal the best outfielders before they could walk away in free agency, which is certainly a viable strategy. Get younger players and reset the finances, they figured. Don't give up on the season, but don't let the valuable players just disappear without any return.
Fine. But how does Markakis help that strategy? As a free-agent addition, he's a cherry to put on the sundae. He's a $15 package of dried red pepper to sprinkle on a hot, fully cooked pizza, purchased because you had nothing else to do with the money and you really like dried red pepper. He's a complementary piece, not a player who can make up for Heyward and Upton leaving in the same offseason.
We'll need to see what the Braves do for the remainder of the offseason, but they have a daunting task ahead:
Ervin Santana (1 win above replacement)
Jason Heyward (6 WAR)
Justin Upton, we're guessing (3 WAR)
Nick Markakis (2 WAR)
Shelby Miller (2 WAR)
Whatever comes back in trade for Upton (?)
The WAR is there as supporting evidence, not because it's precise enough to tell you exactly how worse off the Braves are or will be. Even if you take the numbers away, though, you can reach the same conclusion just by eyeballing it. Heyward and Upton are a big loss in the outfield. Christian Bethancourt getting 450 at-bats and Nick Markakis almost certainly won't make up for it, at least not entirely.
The difference between the lost and the gained is about one player. The caveat is that the player has to be an All-Star, or something close to it. There aren't a lot of those left on the open market, even if the Braves still had money. But if they could somehow get immediate value back for Justin Upton -- someone who could play like Mike Trout or Giancarlo Stanton, roughly -- they could make up the gap between the incoming and outgoing players.
Which means they would be back to the team that finished 79-83 last year.
Oh, there are other ways the Braves can contend next year. Baseball isn't simple. Andrelton Simmons could suddenly turn into a high-average, high-OBP player and become one of the best all-around shortstops we've seen in years. Freddie Freeman could turn from an excellent young player into a superstar -- Joey Votto in his prime. Chris Johnson could hit again. B.J. Upton could ... I don't know ... yell "LOOK OUT FOR THAT OPEN MANHOLE COVER" when walking with some of the good players. There's a way for the Braves to improve on last year's record with some surprises and internal development. Markakis could be an important part of that.
As is, though, they seem to be a bizarre fit for an expensive, perfectly helpful and unspectacular player who is built for the short term at the expense of the long-term budget. Everything they've done this offseason has been with the distant future in mind. Markakis is a player designed to help a good team getting better, not a team coming off a below-average season and getting worse. The Braves stretching the budget for him is one of the weirdest strategies of the offseason.