For Angelos and O's, Markakis Making Case

Nick Markakis
Outfield prospect Nick Markakis has played well enough this spring to impress Orioles Manager Sam Perlozzo. (James A. Finley - AP)
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 25, 2006

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., March 24 -- Baltimore Orioles Manager Sam Perlozzo couldn't resist asking the question when he gave his biweekly update on the team to owner Peter Angelos. Their telephone conversation a couple of weeks ago worked its way quite naturally to Nick Markakis, the outfield prospect who has so dazzled Perlozzo he's pondering keeping him on the major league roster despite having a ballclub overloaded with veteran outfielders.

Perlozzo mischievously sought Angelos's opinion on the 22-year-old, left-handed hitting prospect, who went 4 for 4 Thursday against the Washington Nationals and sports a .348 average this spring. Besides his uncanny judgment at the plate, where Perlozzo said his knowledge of the strike zone is as strong as any veteran on the team, Markakis, who moved up to Class AA Bowie last year, would seem to have this in his favor:

He's already done very well for the Orioles' boss.

Markakis, who is half Greek and half German, led the Greek Olympic team, which was largely assembled by Angelos and his son Louis, with a .346 average in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. And, for good measure, the former pitching star added a couple of stellar innings in relief, where he was clocked throwing a 94-mph fastball.

"I said [to Angelos], 'You want him to make the club?' " Perlozzo said with a laugh before Friday's 2-0 victory over the Boston Red Sox, in which Markakis went 0 for 1. "I don't think he'd be disappointed by any stretch, but at the same time, he absolutely did not lean. He gave me full choice."

The choice, though, is the difficulty. Markakis has made a convincing case, awing even his elder teammates with his poise and production. But where, exactly, does Perlozzo put him? Simple mathematics -- counting the number of veterans who seemingly have earned the right to play, and considering that no deal, such as a possible trade involving center fielder Luis Matos, has yet been made -- suggests Markakis will begin the season at Class AAA Ottawa alongside top pitching prospect Hayden Penn.

Perlozzo, though, said Markakis could stick even if nobody is traded. He said team executives have been wrangling with the issue daily and that Markakis has a legitimate shot, especially if he keeps going 4 for 4.

"It certainly helps, when you see somebody do that," Perlozzo said. "I was told this kid was the real deal and could play. One thing I'm really impressed with is his knowledge of the strike zone for a young kid. . . . I don't see him having many bad swings."

"There's some special things about him," the manager added.

Markakis has a long, sweet swing that mesmerized Orioles scouts, but the team's outfield is crowded. The situation is, in Perlozzo's words, "blurry." Jay Gibbons is cemented in right, but Corey Patterson, acquired from the Cubs in the offseason, and last year's center field starter Matos both have claims on center field -- a problem for Perlozzo even without Markakis in the equation. Veterans Jeff Conine and Kevin Millar can play left. There's also David Newhan, who has also had a great spring, hitting .429.

Perlozzo vows he won't keep Markakis on the big league roster if he can't get him in the lineup regularly.

"If he makes the team, he plays most of the time until he shows us he can't," Perlozzo said.

For whatever Millar's opinion is worth, he wants to see Markakis stay. There is a slew of ways Markakis can get playing time without upsetting the Orioles' house, Millar said. For one, Millar volunteered, Markakis handles every position in the outfield, which means he can spell the veterans when they need to rest. Millar and Conine also play first base -- a position converted catcher Javy Lopez is struggling to master -- and designated hitter, giving them a flexibility that could make room for Markakis.

"I feel he can help this ballclub now," Millar said. "If you're ready to play in the big leagues, you're ready to play. He's an outfielder. He'll play all three positions. There's no one in the locker room that's bigger than the team."

Markakis has played only right field in the minors, but, Perlozzo said, he is known to play well in center, too. Perlozzo calls his play in left field "not . . . his best, but certainly playable."

Markakis has certainly displayed an ability to adjust. At Young Harris Junior College in Georgia, he dominated as a pitcher and hitter, compiling a 12-0 record and a 1.68 ERA. He was so highly regarded, the Cincinnati Reds drafted him twice as a pitcher, but he did not sign. The Orioles, however, who selected him seventh overall in the 2003 draft, told him they wanted him to play the outfield and work on his hitting. Last year, he was their minor league player of the year.

He had not pitched in more than a year when the Greek Olympic team -- short on hard throwers -- asked him to take the mound.

"It felt weird, but it was a blast," he said. "I loved pitching . . . [but] the Orioles asked me to put pitching behind me, and I did. . . . I'm going to continue to take it day by day and help the team anyway I can."

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