• Adam Jones

    Settling on Markakis cannot signal end of Braves moves

    By Bud L. Ellis

    BravesWire.com

    ATLANTA – It’s funny, if not downright ironic. Nick Markakis is the consummate professional, a man’s man who never shows emotion, speaks quietly to the media (when they can drag a quote out of him), and just goes out and does his job, for better or for worse. This is not the type of player who sparks divisive debate and impassioned argument among a fan base.

    But in the moments after the Atlanta Braves announced the 35-year-old right fielder would return on a one-year, $4-million deal for 2019, social media became lit, as the kids say. And there was no middle ground, with reaction falling into one of two camps:

    • Absolutely outstanding to bring back a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winner who earned his first career All-Star berth.
    • Absolutely inexcusable to bring back a mid-30s outfielder who slashed .258/.332/.369 in the second half and went 1-for-12 in the NLDS.

    The stats in the second bullet were pulled from a notes file I compiled in looking back on 2018, a season that saw the Braves slam shut the rebuild and fling open the window to compete. In no way was Atlanta capable of a World Series run a season ago, but entering 2019, expectations have changed. Hence why, within that notes file buried on my hard drive, I typed the following in my Markakis section:

    “Expect him to be elsewhere in 2019.”

    Yeah, about that …

    I am among those who voiced my, shall we say, displeasure with what I feel on the surface is the Braves settling for the status quo one season later, in a division that is markedly better, with a team that cannot be satisfied with just a winning season in 2019. Markakis’ second-half swoon may be a by-product of fatigue from his insistence to play every single day – an approach that absolutely cannot be repeated – or it could be a signal of regression for a player who slashed .272/.350/.391 in his two seasons before 2018.

    And that’s not bad. Not at all. But it’s nowhere close to the .323/.389/.488 slash line Markakis put up through the first half of the season. In other words: the feeling that Markakis’ first four months were more of an anomaly than the norm isn’t just a stance to back up an opinion. It’s a fact.

    What’s also a fact is this team, like it or not, now is viewed through a different lens. Sorry folks, that what happens when you start winning. And if you’re going to have a mid-30s outfielder posting a season OPS+ of 97 (his average for 2016-17 before a 117 last season), you’re going to need big-time offensive performances from several other spots in the lineup to be a World Series contender.

    Yes, Ronald Acuna Jr. turned the baseball world upside down, Freddie Freeman was an MVP candidate until a late-season slump, Ozzie Albies was an All-Star (he also struggled in the second half), and in Josh Donaldson, Atlanta has the potential to possess the MVP-caliber thumper this lineup needs to go with Freeman in the lineup. But Acuna enters his first full big-league season, Freeman turns 30 in September, Albies begins his second full major-league campaign, and Donaldson has battled injuries the past two seasons.

    In other words, right field felt like a natural place to chase an upgrade. And let it be known, the Braves chased. Michael Brantley wasn’t coming here because he wanted to play in Houston, with no state income tax and for a team that won 103 games last season and the World Series the autumn before. Atlanta was not going to pay Andrew McCutchen the stupid money Philadelphia did (rightly so). They like A.J. Pollock but not at the years/money for a talented yet oft-injured outfielder on the other side of 30. Carlos Gonzalez’s splits away from Denver scared them (again, rightly so). Adam Jones arguably is as big of a regression candidate as Markakis.

    Don’t like the Markakis signing and want to be mad about it? Direct your anger toward Phoenix and Seattle. Arizona tore down part of its core and yet, insists on not trading David Peralta as the Diamondbacks front office holds illusions of competing. Seattle has “reimagined” its roster but refuses to deal Mitch Haniger – understandable considering the club control of the rising star.

    On the surface, Atlanta realistically never could have been in on Bryce Harper, although I’ve said all winter he would be the absolute perfect fit in right field and the cleanup spot. The Braves, even if they were awash with a $200 million payroll, could not do a 10-year deal for anybody, not with the names hitting free agency after 2021 (Freeman, Mike Foltynewicz), 2022 (Dansby Swanson), 2023 (Albies, Sean Newcomb, Johan Camargo), 2024 (Acuna, Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint), etc.

    A shorter deal with opt-outs and a high AAV always was the only realistic path, and there is no doubt in my mind Atlanta went there with Harper. Whether it was shot down immediately or considered somewhat seriously, who’s to say? Harper, of course, remains unsigned.

    Markakis truly is one of those guys you want on your team, but his presence should not preclude Atlanta from trying to bolster the offense as we approach spring training. Does that mean J.T. Realmuto and the never-ending soap opera with the dysfunctional Miami front office reaches its long-overdue finale? Does that mean another push for Peralta or Haniger? Or, using some reverse thinking here, does it mean Atlanta finally trades some of its prized prospects for a true ace (Corey Kluber)? With Markakis signed for a small price, do the Braves look to the reliever market (hey, aren’t you Craig Kimbrel)?

    There are positives in bringing back Markakis, of course. You know what you’re going to get. Hard work. Discipline. Leadership. No distractions.

    It would be folly to expect a full season of what Markakis provided in the first half of 2018. But let’s hope what we see this season is closer to that and not a continued downward trend toward the final three months of last season. Because at the end of the day, the answer to that question may turn out to be the biggest one in determining if October baseball awaits for a second consecutive season.

    There will be plenty of rightful second-guessing of Alex Anthopoulos for this signing if it doesn’t.

    —30—

    Bud L. Ellis is a lifelong Braves fan who worked as a sports writer for daily newspapers throughout Georgia earlier in his writing career, with duties including covering the Atlanta Braves, the World Series and MLB’s All-Star Game. Ellis currently lives in the Atlanta suburbs and contributes his thoughts on Braves baseball and MLB for a variety of outlets. Reach him on Twitter at @bud006.

    The Moves the Braves DIDN’T Make and Why

    By Jim Pratt

    Atlanta Braves GM Frank Wren seems to run his ship by the philosophy that the best deal is sometimes the deal not made. With little financial flexibility and very few holes to fill, that strategy seems well suited to the Braves’ needs. Considering Jair Jurrjens and Martin Prado are rumored to be Atlanta’s primary trade chips, Wren needs to maximize their return in any trade.

    Carlos Beltran signed a 2-year, 26 million dollar deal with the Cardinals.

    Left Field is the biggest, if not only, hole in the lineup that is a must fill. Carlos Quentin, Carlos Beltran, Josh Willingham and Yonder Alonso were all possible targets that have since either been dealt to or signed with another team.

    Here is a look at some of the off-season moves the Braves DIDN’T make.

    Obviously the prospect price tag wasn’t what kept former White Sox outfielder Carlos Quentin from Turner Field. It cost the San Diego Padres nothing more than a potential mid-rotation starter in Simon Castro and a probable LH reliever in Pedro Hernandez to acquire him. The Braves were likely reluctant to give up much in the prospect area for Quentin due to his injury history and pending free agent eligibility next season. Quentin could have been the ideal power bat for the Braves order, but having averaged only 120 games played over the past four seasons, it was too much of a risk.

    Injury concerns were also at play when considering All-Star outfielder, Carlos Beltran, but more than that it was his rumored asking price that was going to be the deal breaker. He eventually signed a 2-year deal worth $26 million with the World Champion St.Louis Cardinals.

    Josh Willingham signed a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal with the Twins

    Atlanta’s chance to acquire free agent Josh Willingham exited stage left when he signed a 3-year $21 million contract with the Minnesota Twins in mid-December. Willingham is coming off a career year, offensively, with 29 HR and 98 RBI in 2011. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider they were put up in the pitcher-friendly Oakland Coliseum. At age 32, his 136 games played were the most since 2007, but at $7 million per season it would seem a perfect fit for what the Braves need. Willingham’s desire for a 3-year deal and his substandard defensive play might have been what kept the Braves away.

    Before the Cincinnati Reds pulled the trigger on a deal for Padres’ RHP Mat Latos, there were rumors they were interested in Jurrjens. Since it seems unlikely the Reds would deal their young shortstop Zack Cozart, the only other logical fit would have been INF/OF Yonder Alonso. A natural first baseman, the same problem of being blocked at that position in Cincinnati would have occurred in Atlanta with Freddie Freeman entrenched at 1B. His potential .290/20+ HR bat would have been a plus in the Braves’ lineup, but a brief 16 game trial period in the outfieldlast season proved unsuccessful.

    Baltimore is looking for a king's ransom for center fielder Adam Jones.

    The Adam Jones rumors seem to have faded as the calendar turns to the New Year. Jones, who hit .280 with 25 HR for Baltimore last season, would have been a nice addition. He is under contract through 2014, and if a deal had been made, Jones could have moved from LF to CF after this season if Atlanta is unable to re-sign center fielder Michael Bourn. But the Baltimore Orioles think a lot of their young center fielder … with the emphasis on a LOT. Atlanta’s front office probably had trouble hiding their laughter after the Orioles reportedly asked for Jurrjens, Prado and two of the Braves top young pitchers.

    Since those non-moves are now in the rear view mirror, BravesWire will next take a look at some deals that could still be done to bolster an offense that ranked #22 in runs scored last season. Keep an eye out for that next week.

    Follow Jim Pratt on Twitter: @2OutSacBunt

    P.S. The Fried Baseball podcast will return spring 2012 with an entirely new feel. More guests, more interviews and more insanity. See ya then!