On Thursday, the Braves announced the signing of Jonny Gomes to a one year/$8 million deal. Signing Gomes almost certainly improves the Braves by way of adding a veteran with a proven MLB track record to play left field. This is a stark contract to Dian Toscano, who hasn’t played professional baseball since 2012, or Zoilo Almonte, who will turn 26 this season and has played only 47 games at the highest level.
Gomes needs a platoon partner to be effective, though, as he owns a .721 career OPS vs. right-handed pitchers compared to an .861 OPS versus left-handers for his career. That also doesn’t account for his poor defense in the outfield. Since a smart front office like the Atlanta Braves almost certainly understands Gomes’ poor defensive reputation as well as the fact that he’s spent only one season of his career as a full-time player, it’s hard for me to believe this is a move to help turn the Braves into legitimate contenders in 2015. It does, however, follow a pattern of signing players fans may know from other successful franchises or at least franchises famous for employing famous players.
The pattern starts with Zoilo Almonte. Signed on November 10th, Almonte appeared to be the first step in adding the much-needed outfield depth that the Braves lacked during the 2014 season. Almonte’s major league career so far doesn’t appear to necessitate a major league deal but it’s possible Braves assistant GM John Coppolella believes Almonte could stick on the 25 man roster this season due to his past relationship with Almonte’s former team. I sincerely doubt the average Braves fan has ever heard of Almonte, which leads me to what questions they will likely ask when the first encounter this player: what are his stats and who did he used to play for? Almonte’s career .211/.242/.282 line with 2 home runs is unlikely to inspire any fans to run out to buy tickets, even though his AAA line is significantly better. Which leads us to the second question: who did he used to play for? As a former 9-year Yankee farmhand and sometime major league player, Almonte comes South after playing with the most storied baseball franchise in MLB history. Fans may not have heard of Almonte, but they’re certainly familiar with his pedigree.
A month later, the Braves signed Nick Markakis to a 4 year/$44 million deal. The splash seemed to be an attempt to replace Jason Heyward and keep the Braves competitive, but any attempt at 2015 contention later went out the window when the Braves continued to turn over their major league roster for minor league prospects. Fans may actually recognize Markakis by name, unlike some of the team’s other acquisitions. Markakis attended high school in a suburb of Atlanta and was drafted out of Young Harris, a liberal arts college located 2 hours north of Atlanta in the mountains bordering Tennessee. He was Heyward’s gold glove counterpart in the American League last season, making 0 errors in over 1300 innings in right field. Unfortunately, Markakis is unlikely to replace Heyward with his bat or glove. Once a doubles machine, Markakis hasn’t slugged over .400 since 2012 and his glove-work rates poorly by advanced defensive metrics like UZR and dWAR. What Markakis actually offers the Braves is a player fans may recognize as an important part of the 2012-14 Orioles, who ended the franchise’s 15 year drought without a winning season and made the playoffs in 2 out of 3 seasons.
I previously covered that Alberto Callaspo, signed with the intention of manning 2nd base and possibly platooning with Chris Johnson, made for a strange fit as the large half of a platoon. Callaspo favors hitting against left-handed pitching from the right-handed side so pairing him with Johnson, doesn’t make much sense. When you break-down Callaspo’s recent team history in relation to some of his new teammates, however, we see he fits a pattern similar to Almonte and Markakis: fans may not know him by name but they’ll know the reputation of the teams and some of the players he’s recently played with. Callaspo’s .242/.313/.331 line over the last 2 seasons won’t excite fans. They will be familiar with his last two teams, however. First, from mid-2010 through 2012, Callaspo manned 3rd base for the Angels. In 2012, the Angels assembled one of the most recognizable lineups and pitching staffs in baseball. By mid-season, Mike Trout had established himself as a rookie phenom and was playing along side big-ticket free agents like Albert Pujols and CJ Wilson in addition to recent all-stars like Torii Hunter and Jared Weaver. They also made one of the biggest trade deadline splashes of 2012 by acquiring Zack Greinke. The Angels may not have made the playoffs in 2012, but the fan-on-the-street certainly would know a lot of their players.
Fast-forward to a season later, after the Athletics acquired Callaspo in an off-season trade, and he found himself on a team known throughout sports for winning a lot of games while spending very little. It didn’t hurt the A’s notoriety that a film about the team’s general manager had been released a year earlier starring one of the biggest movies stars of his generation. The A’s made nightly highlight reels thanks to the electric arms of Cespedes and Reddick in the outfield and the teams’ ability to hit home runs seemingly at will. Fans may not recognize Callaspo, but they certainly recognize the famous teams and famous players he’s recently played with.
This brings us to the Jonny Gomes signing. Gomes signed a one year deal with the A’s in early 2012 and became an integral part of the team’s success. Platooning with Seth Smith, Gomes posted a 142 wRC+ in 99 games for the 94-win A’s. The Red Sox liked what they saw and signed Gomes to a 2 year/$10 million deal after the A’s allowed him to leave for free agency. With Boston in 2013, Gomes became infamous as part of the bearded World Series champions. He slipped to a 109 wRC+ that season but his beard and reputation as a strong clubhouse leader became infamous. When Boston slipped back to the bottom of the AL East in 2014, Gomes found himself heading back to Oakland and back to the playoffs. Even with the 2014 A’s September swoon, teams that Gomes has played with since 2008 are 674-567. Once again, we find the Braves signing a player who won’t help them improve over their previous starter, but they did manage to sign a player whose names fans should recognize.
With all four players, Almonte, Marakis, Callaspo and Gomes, the story is the same: none of these players are stars on the field but all of them are either somewhat famous or famous for playing with famous teams. The clear question is are the Braves loading up on players who feel like winners even if the team can’t win on the field? Like a rich loser who uses their money to surround themselves with friends, are the Braves just trying to buy the friendship of players who have been near success in order to lift everyone’s mood?Next post: A Look at Minimum and Average Salaries Over the Past 10 Years
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