Nick Markakis – Trade Bait?
Two years ago, Nick Markakis appeared to be on the threshhold of an enormous career, and the face of a once proud franchise for the next decade. In the 18 months since signing a contract extension commensurate with that stature, things have not gone well. Where do the Orioles go with Markakis?
As a 22 year old in 2006, Nick Markakis broke into the Baltimore Orioles’ lineup as its starting right fielder, without the benefit of even one at bat at the AAA level. Drafted #7 overall in the 2003 draft, he started in low-A ball, and by the end of 2005, was terrorizing opposing pitches for the AA Bowie Bay Sox.
Markakis more than justified the leap from AA to the majors. In 147 games in 2006, he hit 16 HRs and posted a more than respectable (given his age) .799 OPS and .346 wOBA – and his work in the field was equally impressive, as he showed off excellent range and the arm of a former pitching prospect.
The next two seasons appeared to presage superstardom for the young right fielder. In 2007, Markakis increased his production across the board, ultimately producing a 4.2 WAR season (good for 3rd among AL Right Fielders) on the back of a triple slash line of 300/362/485, and added 18 SBs while continuing to play a standout RF.
In 2008, Markakis again improved. While holding his ISO constant at 185, he again upped his OBP, posting a wOBA of .389, good for 6th best in the league. His 6.3 WAR finished 3rd in the AL, behind only Alex Rodriguez and MVP Dustin Pedroia. Early in 2009, the Orioles rewarded Markakis with a six year extension worth $66M (with a club option for the 2016 season at 17.5M)
Since the beginning of the 2009 season, Markakis that make him basically a decent starting outfielder. While still a strong on-base hitter, Markakis’ power has diminished relative to 2007-2008 levels, doubly concerning because (a) he plays a corner outfield position in a hitters park, and (b) the power outage has appeared as he approaches his 27th birthday. He posted a 2.2 WAR in 2009 on the basis of his 293/347/453 triple slash line (his walk rate declined to his rookie year level of 7.9%). In addition, his UZR numbers placed him in the bottom third of AL right fielders.
So what has happened to Markakis? His line drive percentages are down very slightly, and his fly ball percentages down as well, but those drops are minimal and don’t explain the entire story. The number that jumps off the page for Markakis is his HR/FB%, which has dropped from 12.6% in 2008 to 8.0% to 5.0% in 2010. Looking further at his swing percentages, he is doing less and less damage against fastballs, a disturbing trend for a 26 year old (-2.9 wFB). Further, he is making more and more contact outside the zone (OSwing 83.8% in 2010, against a career norm of 74.3%), and his swinging strike percentage is an all-time low (4.3%, against a career norm of 5.7%). Perhaps Markakis is making too much contact? This may also be a reflection of the poor state of the lineup around him (hitting behind Miguel Tejada’s .295 wOBA and ahead of a struggling Matt Wieters, an up and down Adam Jones and a leveling off Ty Wigginton).
Though a down season, in 2009 Markakis posted a 2.2 WAR while collecting $3M in salary. In 2010, his salary is $6.75M, and Markakis is on pace to produce approximately 3.0 WAR, so it is hard to say that the Orioles have suffered thus far, despite the decreased production. However, from 2011-2015, Markakis will earn 10.25M, 12M, 15M and 15M. He played in 161 games in 2009, so it is hard to imagine he played hurt the entire season, and has played in all but 3 of the O’s games this season, and will certainly justify his contract this year – but by the middle of 2011, it should be apparent whether the numbers are merely a trend, or are hard evidence of an early decline phase for a once promising slugger. If Markakis is playing hurt, the Orioles (as of the date of this writing 32.5 games out of first) are doing themselves and Markakis a disservice by allowing him to play through it.
Presuming Markakis is not hurt, at the 2011 Trade Deadline, it would appear that the O’s need to think about unloading Markakis unless they can convince themselves that he will recapture his 2008 magic – and for a soon to be 27 year old corner outfielder, he appears to be a solid starting major league player, carrying an all-star contract. While Markakis appeared to be a franchise player, he may not be a player you build a franchise around.