Orioles' Markakis may never become power hitter, but experts say he doesn't need to

With team's bolstered lineup, right fielder set to improve on last year's numbers

March 28, 2011|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — You want to make an Orioles player or coach cringe?

You want to evoke a furrowed brow, a disapproving sigh or a dismissive response?

Bring up the fact that Nick Markakis has hit 20 or more homers in just two of his five big league seasons. Fixate on his 12 home runs and 60 RBIs last year and conclude that his numbers are not befitting of an All-Star-caliber corner outfielder.

"Who gives a damn?" Orioles manager Buck Showalter said when asked about the perception that Markakis will never be a 30-homer player. "He's just a baseball player. You know what you're going to get from him every day. This guy hits .300 against left-handed pitching. He can hit second, third, fourth. He can hit anywhere. He just gets it. You hope he's what your organization is all about. Those types of players are hard to find. He makes everyone around him better."

Or as center fielder Adam Jones sees it: "There are a lot more issues here than to pick on our franchise player. Markakis is not hitting 30 home runs, but he is getting on base [almost] 40 percent of the time. He plays an unbelievable right field. Nobody runs on him. He goes out there every day and does a hell of a job with everything he does. For people to bring up his name for anything negative, I laugh. The guy can flat-out play."

Coming off a season in which he set career lows in homers, RBIs and slugging percentage, Markakis is having another solid spring. While the focus has been on the Orioles' four offensive additions, Markakis quietly has batted .377 with two homers and 13 RBIs in 16 Grapefruit League games.

He has a huge advocate in the manager's office, and he has made a seamless transition from working with Terry Crowley, his mentor and confidant, to new hitting coach Jim Presley, who says Markakis has the swing of a "batting champion" and called the 27-year-old right fielder one of the best young hitters in the game.

He has also spent much of the spring slotted second in a revamped Orioles lineup, which means, barring injuries, he will hit behind Brian Roberts and ahead of Derrek Lee, Vladimir Guerrero and Luke Scott.

Everything appears to be in place for Markakis to have that breakout All-Star season that has long been predicted. However, if you are looking for any grand proclamations or predictions ahead of the 2011 season, his locker is the last place you should go.

"I feel like I am in my prime years now," Markakis said. "I think I feel the strongest I've ever been. I don't want to set any goals or anything like that. You know once you start setting goals, you don't want to set them too high and you don't want to set them too low. I do expect myself to step up and have a good year from here on out, and we'll see where we go from there."

But what constitutes a "good year" from Markakis depends on your viewpoint. In 2010, he posted the second-highest on-base percentage of his career (.370) and connected for 45 doubles, the fourth-highest total in the American League. He batted .361 against left-handed pitching, the highest average for a left-handed hitter in baseball. The normally quiet outfielder made strides in becoming more of a vocal leader, calling out his teammates for their poor offensive approach during a rough first half and arranging a one-on-one meeting with owner Peter Angelos to discuss the direction of the club.

Markakis' most ardent defenders will also point out that he had very little help in the lineup with the 31/2-month absence of Roberts, the lack of consistent power from the middle of the order and the growing pains of young hitters like Jones and Matt Wieters. They'll bring up that opposing teams consistently pitched around him.

But in the third season of a six-year, $66.1 million deal, Markakis knows that type of contract comes with increased responsibilities that won't nearly be satisfied by a line of a .297 average, 12 home runs and 60 RBIs.

"If you look at my numbers and you review all the stats, you just sit there and scratch your head. Why didn't I drive in more runs? Why didn't I have more homers? But that's baseball," Markakis said. "It's hard to go out there and win games all by yourself. Our team was hurt a lot of the year, we had a lot of players missing and we had a lot of guys hitting in a spot in the lineup that they were not suited for.

"At the end of the year, yeah, you can say I was a little disappointed in some of my numbers. But then again, some of my numbers, I was right where I needed to be. I've said it before: The first three months of last year was probably the roughest time I've had in the big leagues. But you look at the last two months, it was the best time I've ever had."

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