Braves Ask Markakis to Step Back, Flowers to Step Forward

After breaking a four-year mini-drought of division titles by winning the National League East in 2018, the Atlanta Braves have been hesitant to make any long-term commitments to improve their roster. Their biggest signing of last winter, Josh Donaldson, was brought in on a one-year deal. They replaced starting catcher Kurt Suzuki with Brian McCann, who also signed on a one-year deal. By the time they brought in Dallas Keuchel, the contract covered less than four months of baseball, and when they made upgrades at the 2019 trade deadline, they did so by adding a pair of relievers with a year and a half of team control left. So far, it’s hard to say the plan hasn’t worked — they added seven wins in 2019 — but there’s little doubt Braves fans will be looking for more serious investments this winter. The free agency period is less than 24 hours old, so there’s plenty of time for Atlanta to make those bigger moves in the coming weeks and months. On Day 1, however, the team stuck with the same plan of short-term roster maintenance.

The Braves signed both outfielder Nick Markakis and catcher Tyler Flowers to one-year, $4 million contracts on Monday. Each move carried with it some payroll trickery; Markakis and Flowers each had $6 million options for 2020, but Atlanta declined them in favor of paying $2 million buyouts to each. Both players still make $6 million in 2020, but the Braves can direct the $4 million in buyouts onto their 2019 payroll, according to’s Mark Bowman. Atlanta also declined a $12 million club option to Julio Teheran — who hasn’t reached an agreement to remain with the team — and issued a $17.8 million qualifying offer to Donaldson.

The two signings are identical in length and value, but could come with different expectations for each player. Markakis turns 36 in a couple of weeks. This is the third-straight contract he’s signed with Atlanta. The first came before 2015, a four-year commitment worth $44 million. That deal was something of a dud for the first three years, but in 2018, he turned in his best season in years. He hit .297/.366/.440, with a 115 wRC+ and 2.6 WAR that made him a pleasant surprise for the resurgent Braves. It was his most valuable season since 2008 and his best offensive season since 2012, and was enticing enough for Atlanta to bet $4 million that he would continue to hit well enough to merit a starting corner outfield spot on a contending team.

Instead, Markakis looked like, well, a 35-year-old version of Markakis. His wRC+ dipped to 102, his already-mediocre defense took an extra step back, and he missed six weeks with a wrist injury, culminating in a career-low 0.4 WAR in 116 games. His walk and strikeout rates remained excellent, but his power slid backwards, as did his batted ball luck. The biggest decline came in his performance against lefties. An up-and-down performer in the split throughout his career, he went from a 104 wRC+ against southpaws in 2018 to a 71 this year. His success against righties dropped as well, but only from a 120 wRC+ to 112. There’s some good news in Markarkis’ underlying data — his average exit velocity (91.2 mph) and xwOBA (.349) were both his best marks posted in the Statcast era — but his low launch angle and expected slugging marks put a limit on just how dangerous he can be with his bat, which is clearly the only thing keeping him employed at this age.

The reverse is true for Flowers. At 33 years old, he’s now followed two surprisingly above average offensive seasons in 2016-17 with two lackluster showings that more closely resemble his seven years in Chicago. He compiled just a .229/.319/.413 line in 2019, with an 88 wRC+. His walk rate dropped almost two points from his previous season, while his strikeout rate shot up more than eight points.

If he played any other position, Flowers would be sorting through minor league contract offers in February, looking for a team that desires some veteran leadership and might also be fooled by a torrid spring training. But Flowers is a catcher, and he locked down a job on the first day of free agency because he’s a good one. In just 85 games, Flowers compiled the third-most framing runs in the game, 13.2. The catchers who posted the first, second, and fourth-highest totals each caught hundreds more innings than Flowers did. Baseball Prospectus’ had him fourth in framing runs, and Statcast loves his framing ability as well, showing him tied for second in the majors in runs saved on extra strikes, with Flowers showing particularly impressive ability to steal calls above the zone and below it. He finished sixth among all catchers with 19 defensive runs above average in 2019, helping him cross the 2 WAR threshold for the sixth straight year.

He doesn’t show the same defensive wizardry in other areas — of the 78 catchers who attempted at least five throws to second base in 2019, only two had a worse average pop time than Flowers — but his framing impact is legitimate, and has been for a long time. When we added framing to our WAR totals for pitchers and catchers in the spring, Flowers was among those whose career numbers benefited most from the added data. Even as his offense comes and goes, what he offers behind the plate makes him one of the most reliably valuable catchers in the game.

It’s interesting that the Braves re-signed these two mid-30s veterans on the same day, as the two may see a reversal in their roles in the coming season. In Bowman’s report, he notes that Markakis signed his deal with the understanding that he would likely be part of a platoon in 2020, serving as the complement to Adam Duvall’s right-handed power bat. That makes sense, given his aforementioned struggles against lefties, but it still makes one wonder why Atlanta decided to bring Markakis back over Matt Joyce. After all, Joyce was already a platoon bat for the Braves this season, making 89% of his plate appearances against right-handed pitching, and he thrived with that set-up. He hit .295/.408/.450 with a 128 wRC+, posting a higher walk rate, better power numbers, and providing better defense than Markakis at the same position while being the same age. The Braves may plan on bringing Joyce back as well, but with Ronald Acuña Jr., Ender Inciarte, and Austin Riley already in the fold in addition to Duvall and Markakis, one wonders how many 30-something platoon outfield bats a team with playoff aspirations wishes to carry.

Flowers, meanwhile, is suddenly in position to take on a significant share of the catching duties in 2020 after back-to-back years enjoying a virtually even split with another backstop. McCann retired following the Braves’ NLDS exit, leaving John Ryan Murphy and Alex Jackson as the backup catcher options in-house. Murphy has a career 1.9 WAR in parts of seven big league seasons, while Jackson is a 23-year-old former first round pick of the Mariners who didn’t record a hit in a 13 at-bat cup of coffee in 2019, but socked 28 dingers in 85 Triple-A games before that. He can hit the ball hard, but he also swings and misses a ton for someone who doesn’t walk much. Given his hitting profile and his age, I’m not sure the Braves want to bank on him catching 70 major league games in 2020, especially with his defensive limitations. Since Flowers has only caught more than 85 games once in the last four seasons, Atlanta is likely to make another catching acquisition could be in the future, perhaps with another lower-cost signing of someone like Travis d’Arnaud or Jason Castro.

As we begin this offseason, the Braves are in a unique position as an organization. They’re coming off back-to-back division titles, and according to THE BOARD, own the sixth-best farm system in the majors. There’s also a surprising number of positions on the big league roster the team could stand to improve upon, from the corner outfield spots to shortstop, to the freshly vacant third base spot and the pitching staff as a whole. They’ve got the budget and the prospects to make big, exciting moves soon. Now, even. But with their first two signings, they’ve chosen comfort and familiarity. They might be good moves to make, but they’re also the easy ones. That’s why they’re done already. If the Braves want to get over that NLDS hump, hard work needs to follow.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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4 years ago

“I’m not sure the Braves want to bank on him catching 70 major league games in 2020, especially with his defensive limitations.” -re: Alex Jackson

FYI, that narrative may require reworking. BP rates him the top defensive catcher in AAA in 2019.

4 years ago
Reply to  K26dp

You have a link for this? Or is it subscribed BP content? I’m a pretty rabid Braves fan and I’ve never heard of Jackson having high marks for his defense.

4 years ago
Reply to  Francoeurstein

I’m not sure if all the filters will carry over but here’s the leaderboard you will want to play with:

4 years ago
Reply to  vslyke

Great point. Led the league in framing runs and also caught 50% of steal attempts.

4 years ago
Reply to  K26dp

Ehh.. Jackson isn’t know for his glove. He’s a power-hitting catcher who strikes out a ton.