Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis enjoys the offseason.

He likes to hunt and he grows his beard out to the point where he could have powdered it and made a very believable Santa Claus at the 35th annual OriolesREACH Holiday Party for Kids on Monday at Dave & Buster's at Arundel Mills mall.

He also likes to stay in shape, something that was a challenge last winter while he recovered from the broken thumb that cut short his 2012 season and cost him his first opportunity to play in the postseason.

Maybe that's a big reason why he had some of the worst offensive numbers of his career in 2013, but this offseason he says he's right on schedule.

"I was able to start working out a little earlier than I have over the past couple years,'' Markakis said. "I'm a couple weeks to a month ahead of where I've been. I feel good."

Heading into the final year of his Orioles contract, it's obvious that he wants to forget about last season and re-establish himself as a catalyst in the power-packed Orioles lineup.

"A lot went on the past year as far as injuries and stuff, and I got myself in as best shape as I could in the time I was given,'' he said. "[I've had] a few injuries here and there. Those are the things you deal with during a season. It was a tough year for me last year, but I was able to make it through it healthy. That's your main goal at the beginning of every season. It was productive to some points and to some points, unproductive."

The focus is on getting stronger after playing his usual 160 games again, but hitting a career-low 10 home runs.

Meanwhile, the offseason drags on without any sign that the team around him has gotten stronger. Quite the contrary, the Orioles have lost several key players — including longtime teammate Jim Johnson, outfielder Nate McLouth and pitcher Scott Feldman — without making any major acquisitions.

Markakis, who along with his wife, Christina, helped fund Monday's holiday party and bought gifts for 80 kids from Alexander Hamilton Elementary School in Baltimore, said that the front office still has plenty of time to improve the team before the start of next season, and he thinks that the perception of the Orioles' offseason may be different in April.

But he admitted that it was "a shock" when he heard that the club had traded Johnson before the deadline for tendering contracts to arbitration-eligible players.

"Jim's a guy who has been here his whole career,'' Markakis said. "He got drafted by this team, and I played through the minors with him and my whole career with him. We have something a little more special than a lot of the players, but speaking for all the players, Jim was a great guy to have in the clubhouse.

"His work ethic and what he does translates on the field. If you're an Oriole fan, you saw what he did the past two years. It was a tough one to bite, but this is baseball and anything can happen. That's the business aspect of it."

The Orioles also could end up not re-signing second baseman Brian Roberts, which — coupled with the loss of McLouth to free agency — would leave them without a proven leadoff hitter. Manager Buck Showalter hinted at Major League Baseball's winter meetings last week that he might have to move Markakis into that role if the offseason doesn't yield a more suitable candidate.

Markakis has done it before with good results. He said that he enjoyed leading off when he was pressed into the role midway through the 2012 season, but he was non-committal when asked whether he would welcome a return to the top of the batting order next spring.

"That's the first that I've heard of it,'' he said. "There has been no mention of it, but if that's what's got to happen to make the team better and the organization better, it is what it is and we'll address that situation if it comes up."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

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