When the Mets arrive in Atlanta on April 10 for their second series of the 2015 season, the Braves' outfield will be drastically different than the one the Mets faced the past couple of years. Gone are Justin Upton and Jason Heyward, who accounted for a combined 9.0 fWAR in 2014, and Evan Gattis, who might have played in the outfield had the Braves kept him. In are Nick Markakis and Jonny Gomes.
Upton and Heyward are both due quite a bit of money this year and can hit free agency following the season. The Braves seemed to be sacrificing short-term competitiveness for long-term flexibility. Finances aside, let's explore what kind of production the Mets can expect to square off against in 2015.
How they got here
Before going forward, though, let’s flash back to that heady, Gangnam Style-fueled offseason of 2012. The Braves were coming off their second playoff appearance in three seasons. Their outfield had the third-highest fWAR in baseball, with Heyward (6.3), Michael Bourn (6.1), and Martin Prado (5.6) leading the way. Bourn, however, left for Cleveland—and not the Mets—via free agency. The Braves needed to retool.
In came the Upton Brothers. B.J., in six full seasons with the Rays from 2007 through 2012, averaged 54 extra-base hits, 36 stolen bases, a 108 OPS+, and was entering his age-28 season. In 2012, he had posted the second-best power numbers of his career, with a .208 isolated slugging. As a free agent, he seemed like a reasonably safe bet. Justin, traded for Prado, was just 25, and had compiled a 121 OPS+ in five full seasons. He was a year removed from a sensational 31 home run, 39 doubles, and 141 OPS+ season the age of 23.
The brothers were joining Heyward, a 23-year-old budding superstar, in the same outfield. In three seasons, Heyward had averaged 50 extra-base hits, established himself as a Gold Glove outfielder, and had accumulated a 116 OPS+ and 12.9 fWAR. The stage was set for a young, superb trio to dominate the National League East.
But now, just two seasons and one NLDS sweep later, the dust has settled in Fulton County, and only B.J. Upton remains, entering his age-30 season with three years and $46.5 million remaining on his contract. Between 2013 and 2014, Upton had just a .593 OPS and a -0.2 fWAR.
In two seasons in the NL East, Justin Upton compiled 121 extra-base hits with an .826 OPS and a 128 OPS+. He had a .201 ISO in 2013 and a .221 ISO in 2014, and he was even better at Turner Field in 2014, posting a .939 OPS and .267 ISO. Heyward’s offensive production has declined, though he still had a 110 OPS+, but his outstanding defense still made him worth 8.5 fWAR in total over that span.
The Braves moved their corner outfielders who were worth a combined value of $49.7 million (Fangraphs estimate) in 2014 and were due less than half that in 2015 ($22.3 million combined). That would signal the Braves are in rebuilding mode and going conservative with their outfield, right?
Wrong. In December, Atlanta signed Nick Markakis to a four-year, $44 million contract.
From 2007 through 2012, Markakis was an excellent offensive right fielder who justified that kind of money. In those six seasons, he averaged 176 hits, 59 extra-base hits, a line of .296/.367/.456 and a 119 OPS+, and more than a 3.0 fWAR per season.
The Braves did not sign that Nick Markakis. As he enters his age-31 season, Markakis is coming off a 2013-2014 in which he averaged just 38 extra-base hits per season, totaled just a 2.5 fWAR, and posted a .085 and .111 ISO, respectively. And Fangraphs is not expecting his 2015 season to be much better, projecting 41 extra-base hits, a .113 ISO, and a .266/.333/.379 line with 1.1 fWAR.
Defensively, since 2010, Heyward (7.8 dWAR) has been far superior to Markakis (-1.0 dWAR). By nearly every offensive and defensive statistical measure, Markakis represents a significant decline from Jason Heyward.
Last week, the Braves inked Jonny Gomes to a one-year, $4 million contract with a vesting option for 2016 to help fill out their outfield, but the 34-year-old is not the player he once was. After posting a 142 OPS+ in 2012 for the Athletics, Gomes dipped to a 110 OPS+ with the Red Sox in 2013 and dropped to an 87 OPS+ in 2014 with Boston and Oakland. Gomes's strength has been dominating left-handed pitching, and while he was better against left-handed pitchers than right-handed pitchers last year, he was not dominant.
What will the immediate difference be for the Braves in 2015? Fangraphs projects the following totals for the Braves' starting outfield last year and their projected starting outfield this year, per Steamer projections.
Fangraphs predicts the Braves' starting outfield to be quite a bit worse than it was last year. Their overall outfield projects to have just a 1.5 fWAR. In 2014, only four teams had an outfield with a fWAR below 1.9: the Phillies, White Sox, Mariners, and Reds. At the end of the day, the Braves' weird, hard-to-define long-term plan should be beneficial to the Mets in the short term.