When the Orioles let Nick Markakis move on to the Braves in free agency last offseason, I was surprised, though not displeased. The club seems to have held the belief that they could replace what Markakis might offer the team for less than the four year, $44 million contract that he signed with Atlanta. The performance of the Orioles assortment of corner outfielders up to this point in the season has not made that look like a good bet. Markakis himself is having a decent season so far in Atlanta. The Orioles still do not miss him.
That's not to say that the skill-set that Markakis has surprisingly shown for the Braves so far this season would be unwelcome on the Orioles roster at present. Among players who've gotten regular playing time for the O's in 2015, Markakis would be in the lead with his .386 on-base percentage. It's not a particularly close second, either, with the next highest being Manny Machado's .361. If his performance was ported into the leadoff spot in the Orioles lineup, the offense would be better than it is, and so, in turn, would the team.
Just from looking at his batting line of .293/.386/.354, you might think that it would be a no-brainer that Markakis would be leading off for the Braves. Actually, they have him hilariously miscast as a regular cleanup hitter, which is so totally absurd given that Markakis ranks 159th out of 165 qualified batters in ISO (BA - SLG), a stat that indicates a player's power. Not that the Orioles are doing much better than this, either, with frequent Delmon Young sightings in the cleanup spot. Young doesn't have enough plate appearances to qualify, but if he did, he'd rank 156th.
Those who were left behind
The problems with Young getting so much playing time on this year's O's are one of the things that make Markakis look tempting. Young is hardly the only one who is struggling. Another one of the O's corner outfield solutions that wasn't was Alejandro De Aza, who was so bad that the Orioles already cut ties with him even if it meant that most all of his $5 million salary for 2015 was a loss.
Between De Aza's money and the $2.25 million going to Young, that gets you most of the way to the $11 million that Markakis is making with the Braves this year. You get even closer to the $11 million when considering that, if the O's had signed Markakis, they probably would not have also traded for Travis Snider, who's making $2.1 million and cost two prospects.
It's not as simple as all of that. For one thing, Snider alone has been better than you probably realize, at least as far as the different Wins Above Replacement metrics are concerned. Snider came into Sunday's games with a 0.6 WAR on Fangraphs and a 1.5 WAR on Baseball Reference. Even taking the more pessimistic of these, fWAR, if Snider produces half the WAR of Markakis while making $9 million less, the Orioles are getting the better end there.
Another thing worth considering is the sheer improbability that Markakis will sustain the performance he's had so far. Markakis is working with a walk rate that is nearly 50% higher than anything that he managed in any of the previous four seasons. Eventually, you figure, pitchers are going to wise up and realize that challenging Markakis to put the ball in play is a relatively safe plan. He has no home runs or triples, with his only extra base hits being 16 doubles in 303 PA.
His success when putting the ball in play is another area where he appears to be benefiting from good luck that can't last. When Markakis puts the ball in play, he has a batting average (BABIP) of .344, which is a number that is significantly higher than any other year in his career other than his career year of 2008, when he was nearly a .300/.400/.500 player. In the previous two seasons, Markakis had a BABIP that was slightly under .300. His career mark is .317.
Regression is a not-nice word
If that luck turns on him a bit and his batting average drops, bringing an already low slugging percentage even lower, he is going to have some major problems, and so will the team that's paying him $11 million per year through 2018. Markakis now holding the record for consecutive errorless games by an outfielder is not enough to offset that kind of regression to the mean.
It is always possible that the Braves organization and Markakis together have unlocked some kind of new skill in his arsenal that he was not able to realize in his final years in Baltimore. The smart money would not bet on such a development occurring suddenly at age 31 after a general offensive decline in the previous seasons, but that doesn't mean it is impossible. If the Braves have really managed this, good for them. This is not likely to prove to be the case.
Even if Markakis were to actually sustain his current production for the life of the contract with the Braves, there's always the injury risk as well. He is a player on the wrong side of 30 who has had a number of different surgeries over the course of his playing career. If it had been the Orioles who gave him that contract, it would be the Orioles on the hook for the risk.
The Orioles have not yet found their Markakis replacement in right field, but they do at least have the chance to continue trying to find something better. With Markakis there, they'd be locked in to him as their guy for all that money.
Maybe the Nolan Reimold/Chris Parmelee tandem is the answer. Maybe it's not. They're still better off trying that than being stuck with the guy who, if we shave off the points from his slash line that his BABIP luck suggests may happen in the long run, would be batting about .266/.360/.328. And that's assuming that dopes pitching in the NL keep walking Markakis at the same rate once they realize how little he's likely to hurt them on a ball put in play.
That looks a lot like an awful player waiting to happen. For all that the Orioles corner outfield has been a struggle, and for all that Markakis has done fine up to this point in his four year contract, the Orioles are still better off without him.