The Braves Have a Corner OF Problem

The Braves Have a Corner OF Problem

The good news for Atlanta is up ahead, in the distance, you can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The young players this organization has spent the last 3 years acquiring are making their way to and through the upper minors and are slowly joining the big league club.
The future is coming.

The bad news for Atlanta is the past is still here. Specifically, Nick Markakis and Matt Kemp are still here. Even more specifically, the 60 million or so they still owe Kemp and Markakis is still here. While the Braves have been able to avoid negative long-term commitments everywhere else on the roster, corner outfield hasn’t been so lucky. Atlanta is desperately trying to move from rebuilding to being rebuilt and the next big hurdle, arguably the biggest, is going to be figuring out a way out from under these aging two vets.
We’ll take them one at a time.
The Nick Markakis signing was always a bit of a head scratcher. The Braves had just spent the winter before the 2015 season selling off most of their major league pieces for prospects and it was abundantly clear that a massive, organization wide rebuild was under way. Then this happened:
Man, you guys remember that day? What a weird day. I remember exactly what I was doing. I was on my laptop trying to figure out why in the hell my team just signed a declining outfielder with no power to a 4 year/44 million dollar contract at the beginning of a rebuild. Almost 3 years later, I still don’t have an answer.
Markakis has been exactly what everyone thought he’d be when he signed. A 1-2 WAR OF with below average power and declining defense. The Braves have also been exactly what everyone thought they’d be when he signed. A rebuilding club that’s yet to win 70 games with him on the roster and are now trying to get good while he gets bad and stays expensive. It made zero sense then and makes even less sense now.
I could go through Markakis’ numbers line by line and show you what kind of player he is now but you guys know. He’s a slightly worse than league average hitter and a significantly worse than league average defender making 11 million dollars a year. The saving grace for the Braves is that he’s only under contract one more year after this one so it’s not entirely unfathomable that he could be moved. Atlanta would obviously have to send a chunk of cash or a decent prospect in the deal to make it worthwhile for the other team but deals of that nature are made every year.
There is a sense of urgency to solving this problem, however, and for a couple reason:
  • One, Atlanta wants to be contending as soon as possible and you can be sure they feel 2018 is a realistic opportunity to do just that. And contending becomes a lot easier when you don’t have a replacement level RF taking up 600 ABs and 10% of your payroll. This alone is motivation to move him.
  • Two, you may have heard of certain OF prospect named Ronald Acuna who’s currently treating the upper minors like it’s beer league softball. Acuna’s rapid ascension as not only the best prospect in Atlanta’s system but arguably in all of baseball, has made the easy decision to move on from Nick Markakis even easier. And since the level Acuna’s currently destroying is AAA, a 2018 ETA is not only realistic, but likely. Atlanta just needs to create room for him on the roster.
When Atlanta traded Jamie Garcia to Minnesota a couple weeks ago and had the Twins pick up the entirety of Garcia’s salary, one of the first things I thought was Atlanta is going to use that 5M to help move Markakis. And since no team would dare claim Markakis’ contract on waivers, that possibility still exist in August. It’s going to take something creative like that.

 The bad news for Atlanta is Markakis is the much easier of the two problems. Where it really gets tricky is with Matt Kemp.

If you don’t remember Kemp came over in a bad contract swap with the San Diego Padres for dumpster fire Hector Olivera. At the time, and even still to this day, people get confused on exactly what Atlanta agreed to take on in this deal so I’m going to go over it simply because it’s relevant to their current situation.
In the deal Atlanta agreed to take on all of Kemp’s remaining contract and San Diego agreed to take all of Olivera’s remaining contract in return. SD also agreed to send the same 10M to Atlanta that the Dodgers sent to them in their previous Kemp deal. That’s it. All of Hector Olivera off the books. All of Matt Kemp onto the books and an additional 10M to play with. So, at the time he was acquired Matt had 3 years/64 million left on his deal. Assuming Atlanta used the 10M SD sent on Kemp’s contract, ATL was now responsible for 3 years/54 million or 18M/year. It is important to remember though, that Kemp is making 21M/year not 18M/year. Atlanta is only paying 18M/year because of the money SD sent. That’s important because 21M/year is what other teams would be responsible for if they decided to trade for him unless Atlanta agreed to send money along with him as LA and SD did before them.
OK, now that we understand exactly how much Atlanta is paying let’s talk about what kind of player they’re paying for. Kemp is a conundrum. There are flashes of brilliance. Every once in a while you see the MVP caliber player Kemp used to be and dream about how this level player is going to change your favorite team’s fortunes. When he’s on he’s a true force in the middle of a lineup and can legitimately carry an entire team for stretches.
The problem is those moments are fleeting. They don’t last. Kemp will spend a month as the one the best players in the league and then another month as the worst. Because he is a bat-only player, his entire value is tied to how he’s hitting. And because his defense and baserunning are such large negatives, he has hit out of this world to justify his cost. And hitting out of this world against major league pitching just isn’t feasible for a guy on the wrong side of 30 with bad legs. Take 2017, he’s running a 108 wRC+ this year, which is above average hitting, but is at 0.0 WAR. When the only thing you can do is hit, then you have to hit big, all the time. And he just doesn’t.
There is a common refrain among Braves’ fans that goes something like “When he’s healthy, he’s a beast.” While there is truth to that statement where it’s faulty is in its assumption. Kemp carried quite a bit of extra weight on his legs for a few years as well as having arthritic hips, bad hamstrings, bad knees and the burden of being mispositioned. He’s a DH masquerading as an OF and combine that with chronically bad legs and there’s basically zero chance he’s ever going to stay healthy for the marathon that is a baseball season.
The saving grace with Markakis was he’s only signed through the 2018 season and for “only” 11M but there’s no such grace with Kemp. His 21M/year for both 2018 and 2019 along with the fact he’s producing at a replacement level means he basically unmovable. The Braves would have to eat so much of the money still owed to move him that’s it’s not even a realistic possibility.

There’s the most painful path of combining him with one of the team’s better prospects to entice another team to essentially buy that prospect by taking on Kemp’s contract. Basically, the Touki Toussaint trade except this time Atlanta playing the role of Arizona. It’s an effective way to clear payroll but I really can’t see Atlanta sacrificing the valuable assets they’ve spent so long acquiring.

There’s also the option of looking for another bad contract out there to swap with Kemp but replacing a problem with a different problem isn’t really a solution. It’s how they got into this mess to begin with. In hindsight, Atlanta would have been much better off cutting Olivera and eating the 26M he was owed and really, it’s not hindsight. I, along with several other people tweeted that very idea the day the trade went down and now, almost exactly 1 year later, it rings truer than ever.

But Atlanta didn’t want to eat 26M, hard to blame them, and instead doubled down on 54M in hopes they might catch lightning in a bottle and watch a former MVP candidate regain his form. Instead what they have is a very expensive dilemma to deal with and no great way to deal with it. The most likely outcome is Matt Kemp will be the starting LF for the Braves in 2018 and they’ll live with whatever he gives them. But players get worse as they get older and Matt will be a year older next year and not a dime cheaper. It could get ugly.

However you slice it, however you break it down one truth is unescapable, the Braves are paying two spots a lot money for not a lot of production. And if they’re serious about contending next year, the biggest step may be solving their corner OF problem.

3 Comments

Getting Markakis, Dickey and Phillips moved to a team this month would be a great jump start to 2018. Even if Lane or Matt Adams takes the field, Wistler throws 4 innings…we'd get same output and clear spots for Acuna and others waiting in the wings

Author seems VERY critical of Kemp with Zero credit given for what he did for an anemic offense that had no protection for Freeman and had him so Fustrated that he was swinging at everything! The Offense took off and the Braves played a lot better down the stretch last season….The Braves put butts in the seats because of it. Kemps not a bust by any means and the Braves could have never seen Ocuna ripping thru the Minors like he has………One of the corners will be dealt for the Ocuna who we ALL want to see anyway!!!!

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