This pick might stick

Orioles: The team hopes Nick Markakis won't bottom out like other first-round draft selections before him.

September 16, 2005|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

BOWIE - He was preceded by players like Chris Smith, Mike Paradis and Beau Hale, former Orioles first-round draft choices who have fallen into the depths of anonymity.

Center fielder Nick Markakis, who is with Double-A Bowie, isn't familiar with all the names that make up the long list of first-round failures. The quiet 21-year-old with a shaved head, a sweet left-handed swing and a slick glove also appears unaffected that he has become the latest hope to change that pattern.

Markakis, the Orioles' first-round selection in 2003 and the seventh pick overall, reminds Baysox manager Don Werner of Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Shawn Green, who has three 40-plus home run seasons, except that "Nick is a better version," Werner said.

"He could be a 40-home run guy to me," Werner said. "As he matures, more power will come. His ball makes a different sound off the bat. You can not be watching batting practice, and you can tell when Markakis steps in to hit. The ball jumps off his bat, and it goes everywhere. He's just got it."

Such is the hope of an organization starved to produce another homegrown star. After trading Larry Bigbie, the Orioles don't have any of their first-round draft picks on their active roster. Some, such as Mike Fontenot, Darnell McDonald and Wade Townsend, are in other organizations. Others, such as Keith Reed, Richard Stahl and Adam Loewen, have not progressed quickly enough to become everyday major leaguers.

To Orioles officials, the question is not if Markakis will be in the major leagues, but when and where he'll play. Markakis, who hit .339 for Bowie with three homers and 30 RBIs in 33 games this season, has been named the organization's top prospect by Baseball America and has been selected to play in the Arizona Fall League, which starts in October.

The Orioles decided to give Markakis a couple of weeks off before he reports to the fall league, rather than giving him a look at the major league level. They've seen enough to feel good about his chances when the time comes.

"I think defensively, he has the speed, the arm and the instincts to be an above-average [major league outfielder] right now," said Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie. "And he's been a very solid hitter for us. He's not pull-conscious. He doesn't slap the ball the other way just to get a hit. He takes what the pitcher gives him."

For his part, Markakis said he barely keeps tabs on the Orioles. He goes on his computer, mostly to see how his friends are doing in other organizations, and he was unaware of - and indifferent to - the persistent rumors that he would join the Orioles when rosters expanded this month.

"I didn't set any expectations, but your goal is always to move up every level," said Markakis, who was promoted to Bowie from Single-A Frederick on Aug. 1 after hitting .300 with 12 home runs and 62 RBIs for the Keys. "That's everybody's goal, but I am at Double-A now and I am concentrated on just taking each level step by step."

Last year, Markakis hit .299 with 11 home runs and 64 RBIs in 96 games for Single-A Delmarva, but at times, pitchers were able to get the lefty to jump at off-speed pitches. Markakis, however, worked on his approach this season, staying back, seeing the ball longer and being more selective at the plate.

"As you get up higher, any pitcher will throw any pitch at any count," Markakis said. "You just have to keep your weight back and look for a pitch to hit."

A natural right fielder, Markakis played regularly in center field for the Baysox. Impressed by his positioning, his instincts and the jump he gets on balls, one scout described him as a "legitimate major league center fielder."

The scout also predicted that once established with the Orioles, Markakis, 6 feet 2, 185 pounds, will be a perennial .300 hitter who could total 20 to 25 home runs a season. David Stockstill, the Orioles' director of minor league operations, and Beattie expect Markakis to develop more power as his career moves on.

But when will Markakis be in an Orioles uniform?

"He's a guy that can come quickly," the scout said. "I think it's asking a lot for him to come out of spring training next year with a starting spot, but I wouldn't say he couldn't do that. I think at some point next year he could be in the big leagues, and I think he could be their starting center fielder for a long time."

Beattie described any attempt to discuss Markakis' shot at winning a major league roster spot next spring as "getting too far ahead of ourselves," even though improving the production from the outfield will surely be one of the Orioles' top priorities this offseason. Stockstill isn't setting any limitations on Markakis. He's already learned his lesson.

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