During an interview with Evan Drellich, Keuchel dropped the name of the former Oriole when asked about moves he'd like to see the Astros make this off-season. In this post, we took a quick look at Markakis and covered the basics of his track record, potential cost and possible fit with the team. It all sounds good on the surface; just to recap, while not spectacular, Markakis has always been consistent in terms of offensive production, and having watched such a bad team for so many years now, a little offensive consistency can be an enticing thing.
However, a pair of comments left by TCB community members in that article, one comparing Markakis to Norichika Aoki, and the other calling attention to incumbent Robbie Grossman, really stuck in my mind. I've been chewing over them, and the relevant numbers, for several days now, and thus the impetus for this article.
Let's hit the Aoki vs. Markakis angle first; the original idea was put forth in this piece from Dave Cameron over at Fangraphs. The conclusion is that Aoki has been every bit as good as Markakis over the last three seasons, or even better, and while I'll leave it to you to read the article for full details, the reasoning seems to be three-fold; first that Markakis is a vastly-inferior defender, second that Aoki is an even better contact hitter than Markakis, and third that what Aoki lacks in home run power is made up for in triples and steals. Add it up, and Aoki has been worth a full 2.1 Fangraphs WAR more than Markakis over the last three years.
Indeed, a look at Aoki's three year career shows some consistency that was sorely lacking in left field for the Astros last year; he's hit better than .280 each season, with an OBP that has hovered in the .350 range in each year as well. While far from dazzling, as stated previously, Astros' left fielders complied just an 80 wRC+. Aoki, therefore, could represent a notable upgrade and, as Cameron notes in his article, for a relatively-meager salary.
The logic train seems clear then; Aoki is an undervalued, affordable talent who plays a position that the Astros sorely need an upgrade at. We should contact his agent immediately...right?
Not so fast. As was pointed out by the previously-mentioned commenter, Grossman, on his own, posted a 95 wRC+; the other guys that played left field for the Astros were responsible for dragging the team number at that position down.
Now a 95 wRC+ is nothing special; it is, by definition, below average on the whole, and certainly for left field, a corner position that you typically want some more juice out of. Going forward, a 95 wRC+ from left field isn't acceptable. But when you start talking about replacing a young player with an older, more expensive player who can't be reasonably expected to outperform by more than 10 wRC+ or so, you have to ask some tough questions.
Based on their track records and ages, again, Aoki and Markakis are projected to post something right in the neighborhood of a 105 wRC+. So we have to ask what the chances are of Grossman being able to improve to that level; if he can, then there's little reason to go paying millions to a free agent for production that you can get from an in-house candidate for (hundreds of) thousands.
Grossman's year was a tale of two halves; he hit .158/.280/.263 during April, May and June, and then hit .268/.366/.366. Clearly that second-half line isn't one that's going to strike fear into pitcher's hearts, but he went from abysmal to solid contributor. If he were to hit like he did in the second half for a full season, he'd easily match, and perhaps even beat, Aoki and Markakis' projections.
One thing that jumps out to me are Grossman's BAbip numbers by month; only one month of this past season (August) saw him post a BAbip that was not either very high or low (.282). As a thought exercise, let's replace his horrific April (.125/.236/.313, .138 BAbip) with his month of August; his season line jumps from .233/.337/.333 up to .243/.344/.333. Now consider that Grossman's career BAbip is .329 and that his minor league career supports the idea that he could carry an above-average BAbip on his career.
The month of April (not to mention June, .226 BAbip) looks extremely unsustainable. Even that month of August we used carries a sub-.300 BAbip, something that seems very un-Grossman-like given his history. Yet just with that bump, he'd be approaching a 100 wRC+ easily, just a hair short of Aoki and Markakis' projections.
In short, if he can just hit .250 and maintain his high walk rate, he'll match Aoki and Markakis pretty easily. Could that happen? The evidence seems to be favorable. It could be something as small as shaving 2-3% off his strike out rate that allows him to do so, and Grossman is a guy that still seems to be figuring out the balance between the super-patient approach that got him through the minors and the need to swing more often against MLB pitchers and their top-shelf command.
The transition can be a painful one for guys like Grossman, who have always gotten calls in the minors against lesser pitching, and now face the Majors with no reputation to get them borderline calls. Maybe just one adjustment that lets him go the other way better; did you know Grossman has a career 178 wRC+ as a pull hitter, and 133 when hitting it to center field? Would you be surprised if I told you those numbers were 147 and 112 respectively for Jose Altuve? Yet Grossman has provided just a 69 wRC+ when hitting to the opposite field; if that improves a little, it could make all the difference.
If the last few paragraphs weren't indication enough, there appears to be something left in the tank with Grossman, but there are also clearly questions as to whether he'll be able to bring it out. A new hitting coach, another off-season of work, more time having faced MLB pitchers...it could click at any moment, and one has to wonder if the Astros are going to be more hesitant to let him go after watching J.D. Martinez's break out with the Tigers.
Remember as well that Grossman was a guy, along with Springer and Altuve, that the Astros extended long-term offers to earlier; even if the annual figure wasn't high, you don't offer a long-term deal to a guy unless you believe there's a significant chance he'll outperform that deal, thereby rewarding the risk of handing it out in the first place; if you believe he'll simply match it, then there's no reason to risk handing it to him and watching him bomb out.
Matt Dominguez's extension offer was reported to be in the five-year, $17 million range; if we assume that Grossman's offer was similar, then the Astros, logically, must have considered the likelihood to be high that Grossman would be worth a good $5-7 million a year once he hit late arbitration and free agency, which is the kind of money Aoki is projected to make as a free agent.
What seems clear, though, is that Aoki, Markakis and more of their ilk likely offers little tangible upgrade at the position compared to Grossman. If the front office believes that, you can bet they'll be in no hurry to spend their limited free agent dollars on one of them.
Considering that Luhnow has expressly stated that they are looking for an upgrade, however, it also only adds fuel to the fire; if free agents like Aoki and Markakis aren't really upgrades over Grossman, then the front office, logically, must be targeting people they believe are better than Aoki and Markakis. And that's a bit exciting.