If 2020 was indeed Nick Markakis’ final ride with the Atlanta Braves, he will be leaving town after what has been his most complicated year with the team.
The Braves picked up Markakis’ 2020 option less than a week after the 2019 season ended, a decision which elated some and baffled others. In terms of his 0.4 fWAR in 2019, Markakis was coming off his worst year as a Brave - he slashed a respectable .285/.356/.420 with 102 wRC+, but his defensive shortcomings torpedoed his overall value. Needless to say, the Braves must have really valued his veteran leadership to bring him back after a year like that.
Then, when 2020 rolled around, he opted out in the midst of the COVID pandemic, and left the Braves to figure out their next move. Upon opting back in three weeks later, he re-entered the Braves outfield picture feeling like he had something to prove.
What went right in 2020?
Markakis’ unexpected return yielded a thrilling moment on August 6, when he hit a walk-off home run against Toronto.
— FOX Sports: Braves (@FOXSportsBraves) August 7, 2020
NICK MARKAKIS WALK-OFF HOMER
THIS IS NOT A DRILL pic.twitter.com/EGjayIsWJv
This homer came during his first start back with the team, and was only his fifth at-bat of the year. Whether you are a Markakis fan or not, it doesn’t matter - this was a fun moment, regardless (even if that home run proved to be his only longball of the year). He was a bolt of lightning for the first three weeks back, slashing .368/.429/.596 with .435 wOBA and 173 wRC+. He seemed healthy and rejuvenated.
On August 29, he passed Babe Ruth on the career doubles list. For the most part, any time you get mentioned in the same breath with The Babe, you know you’re doing something right. If he is able to find regular playing time over the next several years, he will continue passing elite company. If he can reach 20 doubles next year, he will pass Scott Rolen, Ken Griffey, Jr., Ted Williams, Frank Robinson, and Lou Gehrig on the all-time list.
What went wrong in 2020?
Well...to put it lightly...September went wrong.
It’s not like Markakis was the first player to ever limp through the regular season’s final month, and normally, a player’s stat line can compensate for a few bad weeks - but in 2020, one month represented half the season. For a guy who faded down the stretch like Markakis did in 2019, his 2020 collapse was even more troubling because it started after only 18 games, and didn’t appear to be injury related like his 2019 was.
For as good as his August was, his .164/.218/.233 September line was equally pitiful, kicking off the month with an 0-for-26 streak. Even if you remove that horrendous week, Markakis still only posted a .635 OPS for the month. As his slump corresponded with Adam Duvall regularly hitting moonshots, Markakis’ playing time started to dwindle. By the time the playoffs rolled around, he was penciled into the eighth spot in the lineup, a move Brian Snitker would have never considered earlier in Markakis’ tenure. To add insult to injury, Markakis was lifted for pinch hitter Charlie Culberson with the bases loaded in the eight inning of Game 1 of the NLCS. Granted, part of this was related to Snitker’s desire to deploy the righty Culberson against lefty Victor Gonzalez, but it was yet another statement on how far Markakis’ offensive prowess has faded with time.
All things considered, Markakis posted a .254/.312/.392 line with 89 wRC+ and -0.4 fWAR - far and away the worst season of his career.
What is his outlook for 2021?
The Braves’ reliance on Markakis over the past few years has been a dual purpose engagement. They have valued his consistent (but generally meager) production on the field, while prioritizing his veteran leadership in the clubhouse. Now that Markakis has completed his sixth season with the team, and multiple other veteran leaders have joined the fold, there is plenty of reason to question whether Markakis has played his last game with the Braves.
With Adam Duvall’s power display during 2020, Cristian Pache’s emergence during the NLCS, and - oh yeah! - budding superstar Ronald Acuña, Jr., the Braves starting outfield for 2021 appears to be mostly locked in. With high-upside outfield prospect Drew Waters lurking in Gwinnett, as well as Terone (Trey) Harris serving as a potential option to log some innings as a backup or bench option, Markakis may be a man without a home.
It might be an undesirable path for Markakis to turn to another rebuilding club like his former team, the Orioles, to garner regular playing time, but he may have to stay in the Orioles-Pirates-Royals tier for the remainder of his career. GMs could attempt to deploy him in the same leadership role he has held with the Braves for more than half a decade. The impending offseason is shaping up to be brutal for free agents, but especially for those of Markakis’ ilk - an aging outfielder with diminishing production and questionable defense.
If this is the end of the line for Kakes in a Braves uniform, we salute the time he spent with the tomahawk across his chest. He showed up right as things were getting ugly in the rebuild, and he stuck around the whole time (well, except for that little opt-out thing). It is a shame the Braves were not able to get him to a World Series - 2020 might be the closest he ever gets.