The Orioles Reserve A Place for Markakis
Sunday, April 2, 2006
BALTIMORE, April 1 -- It hardly seemed fair that when Raul Chavez, a light-hitting, heavy-set catcher claimed on waivers recently, arrived at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and began to fill up a locker with clothing and equipment, it meant that Nick Markakis, Baltimore's most exciting and inspiring player this spring, might soon be headed to the minors.
That a career .215 hitter might have displaced Markakis, who began Saturday's game hitting .333 in camp, on the Opening Day roster seemed to lack logic. It was Markakis who carried a quick swing and a keen batter's eye and each of his at-bats brought more anticipation than is usually allowed for an exhibition game.
The Orioles will insist that it was not Markakis's three hits in Saturday's 8-4 win against the Washington Nationals in both teams' final exhibition game of the spring that sealed a spot, but Baltimore waited almost until the final moment to announce the young outfielder had made the team. The night was filled with intrigue until Manager Sam Perlozzo announced the decision after the game, only four hours prior to the midnight deadline for setting rosters.
The surprise was that both Markakis and Chavez made the team and Baltimore, perhaps feeling confident about the maturity of their starting pitching, sent down reliever John Halama, meaning the Orioles will carry just an 11-man pitching staff into the season.
"We felt Nick could play in the major leagues but we were trying to get the roster to work to where the people who deserved to make the team made the team," Perlozzo said.
It has been quite some time since an Orioles' position-player prospect caused such a stir. Baltimore felt Markakis, who began last year in Class A Frederick, was ready for such a promotion less than three years after he was drafted with the seventh overall pick in the 2003 amateur draft.
With the left-handed Scott Kazmir pitching for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Monday, the left-handed Markakis probably won't make his debut until Wednesday at the earliest. Perlozzo said Luis Matos, Jay Gibbons and Jeff Conine would be his starting outfielders on Opening Day, but the manager also promised that Markakis would get sufficient at-bats. Perlozzo said it would be a task to find playing time for all of his outfielders.
"Nick I think is going to be a huge part of the puzzle," Orioles pitcher Kris Benson said. "He's performed exceptionally well this spring defensively and offensively. . . . Guys that all of a sudden pop out of nowhere become your franchise-type players. He's definitely got the tools for it."
The Orioles had discussed whether to carry Chavez, another outfielder or a 12th reliever. All spring Perlozzo said that he was certain he was going to carry 12 pitchers, which made it seem that the choice was going to be between Chavez and Markakis. But in the end the temptation to carry Markakis was too great.
"He played extremely well and he forced our hand," Perlozzo said. "I was impressed with everything he did out there."
Markakis, as stoic as usual, hardly showed a smile when he spoke with reporters.
"They said I had a few things to work on but that I could work on them up here," Markakis said.
The Orioles felt vulnerable without a third catcher, feeling it would limit them strategically in the late innings of close games. If, for example, No. 1 catcher Ramon Hernandez were to get on base late in a game with a one-run deficit, the Orioles likely would not be able to pinch-run for him if Javy Lopez were the designated hitter. That Lopez didn't demonstrate he could play first base proficiently made the need for a third catcher more urgent than carrying another pitcher. Baltimore's bullpen will be composed of Jim Brower, Sendy Rleal, LaTroy Hawkins, Chris Ray, Eric DuBose and Tim Byrdak.
"I'm not sure how comfortable we are right now," Perlozzo said of carrying 11 pitchers. "Every organization at one time or another brings up somebody who hasn't played a lot down there [in the minors] but they are special players. Nick is a special player."