2014 is key to Markakis' Orioles future

2014 is key to Markakis' Orioles future
October 9, 2013, 11:30 am
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On June 24, everything looked wonderful for Nick Markakis. He had just hit his eighth home run, driven in his 40th run and he was batting a robust .292.

With the season nearing its midpoint, Markakis projected to his career averages, 17 home runs and 81 RBIs and a .292 average.

Then came the slump.

For the rest of the season, Markakis had just two home runs and 19 RBIs, continuing a worrisome trend. From 2007-09, Markakis averaged 20 home runs and 100 RBIs. In the four years since then, he’s averaging about 13 home runs and 62 RBIs.

In 2012, Markakis played only 104 games due to injuries on his hamate bone and a broken thumb. For the second straight spring training, he missed time. Last year, he was recovering from abdominal surgery, and this year, he had neck surgery.

Is the accumulation of injuries a reason for the offensive slowdown?

It’s hard to say that they are. Markakis, universally admired in the clubhouse for his work ethic, missed just two games, and those were due to the death of his grandmother. He even played on Sept. 11, hours after the birth of his third son when manager Buck Showalter said he wouldn’t.

Markakis remains an excellent outfielder. For the second time in the last three seasons, he didn’t make an error in right field. Runners don’t challenge his arm as often as they did, but he still had seven assists.

In his early years with the Orioles, Markakis was uncomfortable with the spotlight. He’s much more comfortable now. Cnris Davis and Adam Jones are the everyday “go to” guys for the press. J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters are always available, making it easier on Markakis.

With the lessened attention, Markakis is also a better interview.

This is a big offseason for Markakis. He’ll turn 30 next month, and begin preparing for the final year of a six-year contract. In 2013 and 2014, Markakis earns $15 million. There’s a $17.5 million option for 2016, one the Orioles would almost assuredly decline. There’s also a $2 million buyout.

One of the beauties of this team is that whether intentionally or not, the highest profile players seem comfortable in this environment.

Jones chose to sign a six-year extension in May 2012 instead of testing free agency. Hardy eschewed free agency a year before and probably forfeited untold millions. Chris Davis could have damaged his bargaining power though certainly not his popularity with fans by his stated wish to stay in Baltimore.

Markakis and Brian Roberts have played nowhere else, and really don’t want to. Roberts may well re-sign with the Orioles at a cut rate, and maybe a year from now, Markakis does the same.

Even an excellent fielding right fielder doesn’t merit a $15 million contract with a .271 average, 10 home runs and 59 RBIs. Markakis knows that.

Other than some scattered Twitter criticisms about his lack of second-half power, Markakis hasn’t come in for the kind of carping that Roberts did from that crowd. And based on the warm welcome he receives at the ballpark, Roberts’ proponents far outweigh his detractors these days.

Markakis sees that Baltimore is an easier place to play than New York, Boston or Philadelphia. He’s one of the few that makes the area his fulltime home.

Never an All-Star, Markakis expressed ambivalence when he was one of the top votegetters in early balloting. He’d never played in one. The game was at Citi Field, with lots of his family close by, but Markakis was just as happy when others passed him, and he got some time off instead.

Showalter is a huge admirer of Markakis’. The outfielder often stops by his office for a quick chat, and Showalter loves his work ethic and his lack of tolerance for frivolities.

A year from now, Markakis hopes that his 2014 is a bounceback season, making his negotiations with the Orioles easier. By then, the team will have a better idea if Davis and Wieters are staying long term.

There aren’t any apparent outfield prospects nearly ready for the majors, which will also factor into this winter’s decision on Nate McLouth’s future. Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette has so far shown a preference for paying his own players rather than dishing out big money for free agents.

Markakis has loved his time in Baltimore and wants it to continue for some years to come. His 2014 performance will dictate for just how many.