Orioles thrilled to lock up Markakis
BALTIMORE -- During an offseason in which they failed in their pursuit of a hometown slugger, the Baltimore Orioles did the next best thing: secure homegrown right fielder Nick Markakis for the next six seasons.
Markakis and Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail sat shoulder to shoulder Thursday during a news conference at Camden Yards. Markakis called it a "fairly easy decision" to accept $66.1 million for six years, and MacPhail spoke delightedly about locking up the team's former No. 1 pick through 2014.
"Clearly, from the time we threw our last pitch last year, talking with (owner Peter Angelos), this was our first priority," MacPhail said. "If there was only one thing we could have done, if he told me you're limited to one thing on your wish list, this would have been it. It's that important to the franchise."
The Orioles, who also finalized a $2 million, one-year deal with catcher Gregg Zaun, took a stab at landing first baseman Mark Teixeira, who played high school in the Baltimore area before becoming a major league. Teixeira signed with the rival New York Yankees, so MacPhail spent some of that unused money on Markakis, the seventh overall pick in the 2002 amateur draft.
"This is quite a commitment on behalf of the club. It is the second-largest contract in team history," MacPhail said. "It's very appropriate that we do this with one of our homegrown, drafted and developed players. It's our opinion that Nick, at 25 years old, is already one of the premier outfielders in all of baseball. You can imagine how excited we are to have him in the fold the next six years."
Markakis excelled as both a pitcher and an outfielder in junior college before being drafted by the Orioles. After a brief stint in the minors, he batted .291 as a rookie in 2006 before hitting .300 with 23 homers and 112 RBIs in 2007.
In 2008, he batted .306, scored 106 runs and led all major league outfielders with 17 assists.
Markakis got married during the offseason, and the couple is expecting a child. He could have balked over the prospect for spending the next six years with an organization that hasn't had a winning season since 1997, but likes the idea of staying in Baltimore.
"The money is good. It's definitely security, but you want to see the direction the team is going," Markakis said. "The way Andy's been handling this, since he's been here I don't think I can complain about one decision or move he's made. It's good to see the direction of the team. It's something I'd like to be part of for a while."
Sure, signing Teixeira would have been nice. But securing Markakis is an indication that he's eager to rebuild the team with youth, whether it be prospects obtained in trades or hanging onto players like Markakis who have worked their way up the team's minor league system.
"I do think this signing sends an important signal up and down the organization," MacPhail said. "On the flip side, when you sign a marquee free agent from somewhere else, you're adding a player that you don't already have."
That didn't happen this winter, but Markakis is perhaps the ideal person to be the face of an organization that has taken plenty of heat over the past decade.
"Being loyal is definitely a big thing with me," Markakis said. "We've had a rough past three years, but you stick with it. If you do that work hard, good things will happen."
His contract is second-largest in team history in terms of guaranteed money, behind only the $72 million deal signed by Miguel Tejada before the 2003 season.
During this offseason, the Orioles have added several decent free agents: Zaun, Japanese pitcher Koji Uehara, shortstop Cesar Izturis, and utility man Chris Gomez. MacPhail also traded for 23-year-old outfielder Felix Pie.
"We think we've improved our defense, got a little younger, more athletic, quicker," MacPhail said. "We still have areas that need to be addressed, and we expect that process to go through spring training."
The 37-year-old Zaun is expected to replace Ramon Hernandez as the starting catcher, at least until top prospect Matt Wieters is ready.
Zaun has 14 years of experience to draw upon in working with a young pitching staff and newcomer Koji Uehara of Japan. Zaun has a .251 batting average in 1,114 games with Baltimore, Florida, Texas, Kansas City, Houston, Colorado and Toronto.
His contract calls for a $1.5 million salary this year, and the Orioles have a $2 million option for 2010 with a $500,000 buyout.
To make room for Zaun on the roster, the Orioles designated first baseman Oscar Salazar for assignment.
One remaining priority is signing second baseman Brian Roberts to an extension. Roberts' contract expires after this season.
"We've made no secret of the fact we want Brian to come back," MacPhail said. "Hopefully we can get something done."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press