Why pick Markakis over Heyward?

Many fans still wonder if the Braves made the right decision picking Nick Markakis over Jason Heyward.

Some people remain perplexed the Braves traded Jason Heyward, a 25-year-old homegrown product, and yet signed Nick Markakis, a 31-year-old veteran, to play right field for the next four years.

The love for Heyward is understandable, to a point. He’s someone fans fell in love with in 2010 when he was knocking out windshields at spring training. Then when he hit a home run in his first major league at bat, everyone drank the Kool-Aid.

But the infatuation some have had with Heyward has always been peculiar. He is a statheads’ dream player, particularly with how defensive metrics are overrated by fans who fall in love with numbers. They value what he does on defense, but they want to ignore the fact Heyward has underachieved and simply not reached his potential offensively.

They want to ignore his putrid batting average against left-handed pitchers. He’s hit .221 in his career against southpaws, compared to .281 against right-handed pitchers. Last season, Heyward hit only .169 against lefties, while putting up a .304 average against right-handers.

Is that just a one-year anomaly? Here is how Heyward’s splits look against lefties and righties over the course of his five-year career.

vs. LHP – SEASON – vs. RHP
.169 – 2014 - .304
.264 – 2013 - .250
.224 – 2012 - .300
.192 – 2011 - .240
.249 – 2010 - .291

That five-year trend shows a struggle for Heyward to show consistency. He’s a young player, still, but the Braves were skeptical he would ever become a better hitter against left-handed pitching. There is reason to understand their concerns.

And where did his power go? Heyward hit 18 home runs in his rookie season. Then in 2011, when he missed significant time with injury, the number fell to 14. He would have been near 20 if he had been healthy. In 2012, Heyward hit 27 home runs.

But in the last two seasons, Heyward has hit 25 homers. He did miss a lot of time in 2013. Heyward would have been over 20 if he had played more, but still what’s the excuse for him hitting only 11 home runs in 649 plate appearances?

Was it because he was Atlanta’s leadoff hitter for most of the 2014 season? Heyward didn’t lead off once time in 2012, when he had his career high in home runs. So maybe that is it. But the downward trend in power was troubling.

That made it more difficult to project his value to the team. If Heyward had been more consistent, and if he had hit more home runs, there would have been every reason to believe he could demand and deserve a contract similar to the one Freddie Freeman got last spring. But those concerns made it more difficult for the front office to justify such a contract.

There are two main reasons for Markakis to be the pick, if you will, over Heyward. First off, he’s a veteran. Markakis is 31, but the Braves see that as a plus. This team desperately needed a veteran player last year. The previous front office obviously didn’t value that, and it showed with a rudderless team that was split in the clubhouse.

Markakis has been around for nine seasons. As I wrote the night he was signed, this acquisition is so similar to the one made by John Schuerholz 24 years ago when he signed Terry Pendleton from the Cardinals. Ironically, that happened on the same date Markakis agreed to a new deal.

The Braves needed someone in 1991 to be the leader of the team, and Pendleton accepted the responsibility with flying colors. He was tremendous. The Braves need Markakis to do the same exact thing, particularly as they put together a retooled roster that will include a number of young players.

The second reason Markakis was signed was his consistency. Like Heyward, Markakis is excellent in the field. Heyward may be a bit better, and his legs will obviously hold up longer because of the six-year age difference, but Markakis is very good in the field.

The difference is at the plate, where Markakis is a .290 career hitter. Against left-handed pitchers, he’s hit .288 in his career, while having a .291 mark against right-handers. That’s incredibly good. We’re not going to see a huge drop off for Markakis, as far as his ability to get on base against a certain type of pitcher.

Like Heyward, the power is not great. Markakis has averaged 15.6 home runs per season over the nine years in the big leagues. So if the Braves are going to pay a right fielder big money to play great defense and not be a huge power threat at the plate, isn’t Markakis’ $11 million per season average better than what they would have had to pay Heyward – which would have been closer to $18 million?

Sure, it is, especially for a franchise that will still have to be careful about contracts. It’s not like the new stadium is going to make the Braves the Dodgers or Yankees. They have to make smart decisions.

If that’s the case, however, why would they sign Markakis to a contract for four years knowing he had to have neck surgery? It’s a logical question. However, the Braves are convinced the surgery will only fix what has been broken with Markakis the last few years and that he will be good to go once the season rolls around.

Does anyone really believe they would have signed Markakis to a long-term contract if they did not believe the surgery was going to help him?

So there are clear reasons why the Braves chose Markakis over Heyward. They were concerned at how much Heyward was going to seek in free agency. Maybe if he is more consistent at the plate in St. Louis and does show more power, he’ll command and deserve a contract that will exceed $100 million. But the Braves had too many questions to make that sort of investment.

And they just believe Markakis is the veteran player this team, this roster, will need moving forward in the next few seasons.

Plus, as John Hart has said repeatedly, the Braves used Heyward to fill a tremendous need in the rotation. Getting Shelby Miller was a coup, especially since he's under contract for the next four seasons. Having the Cardinals throw in a good prospect, also desperately needed, helped matters as well. You almost have to look at this as a Jason Heyward-Jordan Walden for Shelby Miller-Tyrell Jenkins and Nick Markakis trade.

We’ll see over the next four years if they have made the right decision, but the justification was there to proceed in this direction, especially with this ‘process’ in place to fix an organization badly broken.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at thebillshanksshow@yahoo.com.

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