Markakis is `babe' in more than age

Prospect, 22, draws Ruthian raves as hit of Orioles camp

March 07, 2006|By JEFF ZREBIEC | JEFF ZREBIEC,SUN REPORTER

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons thought about it for a moment, racking his brain in an effort to come up with the ideal comparison for Nick Markakis.

Then, while maintaining a perfectly straight face, Gibbons blurted out, "Babe Ruth."

"From what I've seen, yeah, I'd compare him to Babe Ruth," Gibbons said about the fellow outfielder. "I haven't seen him make an out yet. I haven't seen him swing and miss yet. He either walks or gets a hit."

The ever-sarcastic Gibbons, of course, was kidding - at least about the Babe Ruth comparison. In 11 plate appearances this spring, Markakis, the organization's top position prospect, has reached base 10 times, including two doubles in the Orioles' 12-8 victory over St. Louis yesterday, to raise his on-base percentage to .909. He has a home run, two doubles, four singles and four walks, making an early statement that he belongs on the Orioles' Opening Day roster.

It isn't often that a 22-year-old without a single game of major league experience becomes the talk of spring training, but that's been the case here, where seemingly every Markakis at-bat draws a series of oohs and aahs from fans and teammates alike.

"Everybody is talking about him," said Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora. "I think this kid is going to be awesome. He doesn't swing at bad pitches. He hits for power."

Said infielder Chris Gomez: "The guy squares the ball on his bat like it's his job. I don't think I've ever seen him take a bad swing."

Gomez was first impressed by Markakis last season, when the outfielder was invited to major league camp for a stretch to help beef up the Orioles' travel roster. This, however, is Markakis' first full major league camp.

"Last year, it seemed very much like he was feeling his way and maybe wasn't quite sure he belonged," Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley said. "This year he fits right in, looks terrific in the batter's box. He's got a bright future. Whether his future starts this year with us or he needs more seasoning, that remains to be seen."

Several high-ranking officials have said privately that they'd prefer that Markakis begin the season in the minor leagues. Even after he hit .339 for Double-A Bowie in 33 games, some team officials want Markakis, who was rated the 21st best prospect in Baseball America, to dominate Triple-A pitching before donning an Orioles uniform.

However, with an overwhelming spring, Markakis could leave the Orioles with little choice. The club still doesn't have a starting left fielder and one of the candidates, Richard Hidalgo, has left the team and isn't likely coming back. Markakis, who can play all three outfield positions, is also considered solid defensively, though he has gotten some bad jumps this spring.

"I am the kind of guy that if a guy is good, put him in there," Mora said. "I don't care [about his age]. I see a lot of young guys in the big leagues.

"This guy is quiet at home plate, he's got discipline, and you don't see those things with young kids. I would love to see this kid [on the Opening Day roster]. It's not my decision, but I feel he's pretty special. I think he's going to help us a lot. How are you going to learn if you don't get put in there?"

For his part, Markakis maintains that he isn't consumed by the thought of where he'll be when the Orioles open the season on April 3.

"There are a lot of good guys out here, but there are some spots open," said Markakis, the Orioles' first-round selection in the 2003 draft. "My main focus is just going out there and working hard every day, not try to overdo anything, or over-impress anybody."

Markakis certainly looks like he belongs. He walks around the clubhouse with a quiet confidence that borders on cockiness. He has drawn raves from teammates for going about his business quietly, but efficiently.

"He looks like he's on a mission to try to win a job," Gibbons said. "He means business. I've talked to him a little bit and he seems like he's all baseball. He's got that right attitude to win a job. He has certainly lived up to the hype so far."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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