Atlanta Braves

Signed: Markakis Joins a Brave New World

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Over the years Baltimore has lost a number of long-time Orioles to free agency. Guys like Mike Mussina who the fans hoped would spend their whole careers in the orange, black, and white uniforms. Right fielder Nick Markakis can now be added to the list, though he didn’t have much choice.

Markakis, who signed with the Orioles after they took him with the 7th overall pick in the 2003 MLB Amateur draft, has departed Baltimore to join the Atlanta Braves after the two sides agreed on a four-year deal. The money has not been officially announced,  but ESPN.com’s Buster Oleny estimates that the nine-year veteran will earn around a total of $45MM. That would represent a pay cut from the $15MM Markakis earned the last two seasons.

The 31-year old became a free agent after the Orioles turned down their portion of a mutual option that would have cost the club $17MM for the coming season. Instead the team bought Markakis out for a mere $2MM.

Though he holds a career .358 on-base pct. and a .436 slugging pct., Markakis’ never reached the offensive heights that the early part of his career might have indicated. Granted, he played on some awful Orioles squads, but Markakis averaged 20 home runs, 45 doubles, and 100 RBI from 2007 – 2009. He hasn’t reached 20 home runs since then and had the worst OPS numbers of his career (.685, .729) over the last two seasons.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Markakis’ superb defense and rocket-like arm. He won his second Gold Glove Award this season after he captured one in 2011. He did not commit an error in either of those two years as well as in 2013, and has made just 18 errors in his career to date. Markakis is expected to replace right fielder Jason Heyward, who was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Shelby Miller, in the Orioles outfield.

The Orioles have lost two outfielders to free agency, with Nelson Cruz having agreed to a deal with Seattle this past Monday.

Nick Markakis among the Orioles All-Time hitters

Hits – 7th
Games played – 13th
Home Runs – 15th
Doubles – 7th
Runs scored – 11th
RBI – 13th
Walks – 11th
At-Bats 10th

Rumor: Samardzija Could Be Next To Leave Oakland

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The Oakland A’s dealt All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson to the Toronto Blue Jays Friday night, will not be able to resign ace Jon Lester, who was picked up at the 2014 trade deadline for Yoenis Cespedes, and are now rumored to be talking to the Atlanta Braves about outfielder Justin Upton and catcher/outfielder Evan Gattis.

According to John Hickey of the Bay Area News Group, the price would be a high one. Starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija, who was picked up at the July trade deadline from the Chicago Cubs for a package that included starting pitcher Dan Straily and shortstop prospect Addison Russell.

Samardzija is under control for one more season before he reaches free agency. He earned over $5.3MM last season and will get a significant boost based on his performance between the Cubs and A’s in 2014.

Should he go to arbitration, Samardzija’s case will be further proof that a starting pitcher’s won-loss record is not very meaningful. Prior to being dealt to the A’s, the Notre Dame product was 2-7 despite a 2.83 ERA and 8.6 Ks per nine innings. As you would expect his ERA rose in the AL, but only to 3.14. He had an eight to one strikeout to walk ratio and a .262 BABIP or Batting Average on Balls in Play with the A’s and still finished just 5-6 in the W-L columns.

The Braves, who have already acquired starting pitcher Shelby Miller from the St. Louis Cardinals, would probably like to hold on to Upton, but can’t because of another player’s contract that is an albatross around their collective necks. Ironically, that contract belongs to Upton’s older brother B.J. Upton, who the Braves erroneously signed to a five-year, $75.25MM contract prior to the 2013 season.

The deal has been a disaster, with the 30-year old Upton posting OPS numbers you would expect from a pitcher – .557 and .620. Needless to say, the Braves can’t unload him.

The 27-year old Justin, on the other hand, has surpassed an .800 OPS in his two seasons in Atlanta and won a Silver Slugger Award last season after he hit 29 home runs and drove in a career high 102 runs.

The 28-year old Gattis  hit 21 and 22 home runs in his first two seasons in the bigs, despite not reaching 400 at-bats in either year. Though he only caught and DH’ed this past season, Gattis played 48 games in the outfield in 2013. With just two years of Major League experience, Gattis is under the Braves control until 2019, which makes his inclusion in a deal (even for Samardzija) a head-scratcher.

While the team’s rotation would be bolstered by the addition of Samardzija – he would join Miller, Julio Teheran, Mike Minor, and Alex Wood – the Braves would be hurting for runs scored. It’s understandable that the Braves would rebuild their starting staff,pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy are expected to miss the entire 2015 season after both underwent their second Tommy John surgeries this past Spring.

The acquisition of Miller cost the team outfielder Jason Heyward, which means Atlanta would be down three starters from their 2014 lineup, though perhaps someone like outfielder Josh Reddick could be sent along with Samardzija.

If the deal goes through, this is the Braves 2015 lineup at a glance:

C Christian Bethancourt
1B Freddie Freeman
2B Philip Gosselin
SS Andrelton Simmons
3B Chris Johnson
LF
CF B.J. Upton
RF

The Braves added former Yankees prospect Zoilo Almonte this offseason and outfielders Jose Constanza, Joey Terdoslavich, and Todd Cunningham on their 40-man roster.

Meanwhile the A’s starting rotation would be left with Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir. Like the Braves rotation, the A’s had two pitchers – Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin – undergo Tommy John surgery this past Spring and can’t be counted on in 2015. Prospect Raul Alcantara, who has just two games of experience at Triple-A, could join the rotation some time during the season.

TRADED: Cards, Braves Swap Former Top Prospects

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The Atlanta Braves had high hopes for outfielder Jason Heyward, the 14th overall pick in the 2007 MLB Amateur draft. Those expectations were wratched it up a notch three years later when Heyward finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting with an 18 HR, 72 RBI, .849 OPS campaign. But after belting 27 HR with 82 RBI in 2012, Heyward’s offense dropped, but Atlanta’s expectations did not, especially considering what they were paying Heyward. The Braves traded the 25-year old to the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday for right-hander Shelby Miller, the 19th overall pick in the 2009 draft.

The Cardinals also received reliever Jordan Walden, while minor league pitcher Tyrell Jenkins was sent to the Braves’ organization.

Miller was third in the National League Rookie of the Year vote in 2013 when he won 15 games with a 3.01 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 173.1 innings pitched. This past season, Miller’s ERA rose to 3.74 and his strikeouts per nine innings dropped from 8.8 to 6.2.

Heyward is due to make $8.3MM for the coming season and the Braves, apparently, are not willing to pay more than that for the future. Miller, by comparison earned $521K and is not arbitration eligible until 2016. He will earn substantially less in 2015 than Heyward.

The Braves outfielder posted .776 and .735 OPS the past two seasons and slugged a career-low .384 in 2014. He won his second Gold Glove this year and will join Matt Holliday as a corner (RF) outfielder in the Cardinals lineup. Considering the length of time (four years)  that the Cardinals had Miller under control, the deal had to come as much of a surprise to Cardinals fans as it did to Braves fans. Miller will replace Ervin Santana, a free agent, in the Braves’ starting rotation.

Though he has a propensity to walk too many hitters, Walden was solid out of the pen in his second season in Atlanta. The hard throwing righty struck out 11.2 batters per nine innings and held opposing hitters to a .541 OPS. Walden, who did not fare successfully as a closer in his younger days for the Angels, could have a chance to win the job in St. Louis from Trevor Rosenthal.

Jenkins was a supplemental pick (50th overall) by the Cardinals in the first round of the 2010 draft. The 6’4″, 22-year old right-hander missed the first half of the 2014 season with shoulder surgery. He finished the season 6-5, 3.28 in 13 starts for the Cardinals’ Palm Beach (Florida State League) affiliate.

Trade Bait: B.J. Upton

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Another at-bat, another out for B.J. Upton

When discussing baseball players, the media, the fans, and the players themselves all go to the numbers. But the numbers for B.J. Upton are misleading. He’s not been as productive, and certainly not as consistent, as his career figures might indicate.

The Atlanta Braves, and more precisely ex-GM Frank Wren, did not use their heads when they signed Upton  (along with a good signing of B.J.’s younger brother Justin) to a five-year, $75.25MM after the 2012 season. Upton’s career splits in his eight seasons in Tampa Bay were average – .255/.336/.422 and despite averaging 25 HRs, 79 RBI, and 38 stolen bases his last two season with the Rays, there were warning signs.

The elder Upton’s home splits in 2011 were .209/.300/.374; a year later he posted an .814 oPS at home, but .687 on the road. He had also had a miserable first half in 2012 with a .679 OPS in 71 games. His second half surge (21 HR 49 RBI in 71 games) made his overall numbers look better and certainly influenced Atlanta’s decision to sign him.

Politics can play a big part in awards and rewards, but Upton never made an All-Star team, won a Silver Slugger Award or a Gold Glove. The Braves paid the then 28-year old as if he was that type of player. His two years in Atlanta couldn’t have been much more disastrous than they were. A Brendan Ryan-like .557 OPS in 2013 (including a .184 batting average), followed by a .620 OPS last season. He had 33 doubles and 21 home runs…in two seasons combined.

The Braves can’t get rid of Upton fast enough, but who is going to take him? The Braves will have to eat much of the $46MM-plus  still owed to him to have any chance of a deal. Even then, they are not going to get more than middling prospects and no Major League talent, unless it’s swapping one bad contract for another. Justin Upton becomes a free agent after the 2015 season. The Braves may have to deal the “good” Upton in order to keep the senior Upton.

Let the buyer beware.

MLB Preview: Injuries Could Haunt 2014 Braves

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Atlanta will need big production from the likes of Freddie Freeman to make up for a rash of injuries.

by Christopher Wenrich

Key acquisitions:  Ryan Doumit, Gavin Floyd, Mat Gamel

Key losses:  Tim Hudson, Brian McCann, Paul Maholm, Luis Ayala, Eric O’Flaherty

Since the 1990s, the Atlanta Braves have always fielded a competitive team and shown the ability to overcome adversity.  But with the rash of injuries already taking a toll on the squad, the adversity may prove to be too much.  Pitchers Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen are out for the year and will be undergoing Tommy John surgery (Beachy’s second in three years).  Tim Hudson – formerly of the Braves – signed with the San Francisco Giants.  Pitchers Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd are also injured and may not be back until late April or early May.

THE LINEUP
C:  Evan Gattis
1B:  Freddie Freeman
2B:  Dan Uggla
3B:  Chris Johnson
SS:  Andrelton Simmons
LF:  Justin Upton
CF:  B.J. Upton
RF:  Jason Heyward

Jason Heyward should lead off for the Braves, as he is the only hitter they have – aside from Freddie Freeman – who can get on base consistently.  B.J. Upton is not qualified for the role, as he registered a sub-.300 on-base percentage in back-to-back seasons.  In 2013, Upton hit a paltry .184 and struck out 151 times in only 391 at-bats.  Justin Upton (161 strikeouts in 558 at-bats) and Dan Uggla (171 strikeouts in 448 at-bats) round out the Braves’ swing-and-miss brigade.  The threesome provide the Braves with plenty of potential for home runs; however, they swing more violently than a screen door in a tornado.  Their penchant for strikeouts render their offense inconsistent and unpredictable.

Freeman will provide consistency and all-star numbers.  Chris Johnson is a steady contact hitter.  Although it is unlikely that Johnson will repeat last season’s breakout .321 average, it would not be entirely surprising (.289 career average).  Outside of Heyward, Freeman and Johnson, there is little consistency in the lineup.  Andrelton Simmons is perhaps the best defensive shortstop in baseball, but he is not a spectacular hitter.  Simmons does have the potential to grow as a hitter and has decent pop in his bat.  Hitting 15-20 home runs is not out of the question for Simmons, and his average may improve as he gains more experience.

Catcher Evan Gattis is another feast-or-famine hitter in the Braves lineup.  Should Gattis struggle mightily or suffer injuries, Ryan Doumit could replace him in the lineup.  Doumit was a shrewd signing for the Braves, as he can catch, play first base and the outfield.

THE ROTATION
Julio Teheran
Ervin Santana
Alex Wood
David Hale
Aaron Harang

With Beachy and Medlen out for the year, Julio Teheran gets the nod for opening day.  Teheran struggled in his few Major League starts in 2011 and 2012, but he followed with a strong 2013 season and has secured his spot in the Majors.  Teheran posted a 3.20 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 30 starts last season.  The youngster has tremendous potential and will continue to grow as a pitcher.  In the wake of the Beachy/Medlen injuries, the Braves signed Ervin Santana to provide some semblance of stability in their rotation.  Santana has displayed bouts of both brilliance and ineptitude in his inconsistent career.

Alex Wood – the Braves’ second-round draft choice in 2012 – will start the season in the rotation.  Wood has looked impressive this spring, as he currently sports a 0.45 ERA.  Wood may be moved to the bullpen when/if Floyd and Minor return.  If Wood continues to impress during the regular season, the Braves may opt to keep him in the rotation and could move Floyd to the bullpen.  The Braves recently released Freddy Garcia and signed veteran Aaron Harang.

THE BULLPEN
Craig Kimbrel
Jordan Walden
Luis Avalan
David Carpenter
Anthony Varvaro
Cory Gearrin

Craig Kimbrel – widely regarded as the best closer in baseball – will again serve as closer.  Jordan Walden will likely serve as the setup man.  The Braves had perhaps the best bullpen in baseball for years, but it looks like it may be a shadow of its former self now.  Jonny Venters will start the season on the disabled list and may be out until late May or early June.  Eric O’Flaherty is now with the Oakland Athletics.  An inconsistent lineup combined with a lack of proven depth in the bullpen may add up to many losses for the Braves this year.  The injuries to the starting pitchers  may also lead to the bullpen being overworked.

THE BENCH

Despite the injuries, the Braves will not be lacking catchers.  Doumit can catch, play first base and the outfield and Gerald Laird will serve as a backup catcher.  Ramiro Pena will back up Uggla at second base and may steal the job if Uggla has another challenging season.  Tyler Pastornicky – who tore his ACL last August – will back up Simmons at shortstop.  Mat Gamel provides a power bat on the bench and can play first base and the outfield.  Gamel was once a top prospect in the Milwaukee Brewers’ organization, but he struggled with injuries and was an underachiever.

Outfielder Jordan Schafer will likely start the season on the bench.  If B.J. Upton underperforms, he may lose his starting job to Schafer, who hit .247 last season but registered a respectable .331 on-base percentage.  Despite appearing in only 94 games and 234 at-bats as a part-time player last season, Schafer led the Braves with 22 stolen bases and was caught six times.

The Braves could finish second in the National League East if their offense shows more consistency and if they get another Herculean effort from Freeman, but a fourth place finish is more likely.  When top relief pitchers like Venters go down with an injury, O’Flaherty signs with another team, and Gamel is a key acquisition, all signs point to a troubled season.  Look for the Braves to be surpassed by the New York Mets this season and battle with the Philadelphia Phillies for third place.

Christopher Wenrich is a contributor for Designated For Assignment.  Follow him on Twitter (@DuggerSports).