Orioles fans still are undoubtedly reeling this morning from Wednesday’s news that the team’s longest-tenured player, right fielder Nick Markakis, is leaving Baltimore after agreeing to terms on a four-year, $44 million deal with the Atlanta Braves.
This one is surely tough to digest, especially knowing that Markakis -- a homegrown Oriole who spent nine years here and was one of the franchise’s most recognizable players -- wanted to remain in Baltimore.
The Orioles were confident early in the offseason that they would be able to sign Markakis, so they didn't make him a qualifying offer. There also was some concern that he would take the qualifying offer, which would have been close to the price of his $17.5 million mutual option. Now they won't get anything for him leaving.
Ultimately, it was a business decision. Even though the Orioles appeared close to a four-year deal with Markakis in October, they became increasingly uncomfortable with giving the 31-year-old a fourth year. The club had health concerns about Markakis because of a lingering bulging disk in his neck.
Since missing some time with a herniated disc in his neck in spring training of 2013, Markakis played in 160 games that year and 155 games this past season, so the injury didn’t hinder his ability to be on the field. It also didn’t stop the Braves from pursuing Markakis.
The Orioles also were concerned that Markakis’ game was in decline. Despite winning his second Gold Glove, there was belief his foot speed in right field was diminishing. Also, after averaging 45 doubles from 2007 to 2010, Markakis averaged just 27 doubles over the past four seasons.
And the Orioles’ recent success over the past few years has been helped by the club not being locked into many risky long-term deals. They would be more handcuffed by those type of deals than other teams.
The Orioles’ concerns about Markakis’ deal paying off over a four-year deal are legitimate in the business sense -- there are many people in the Warehouse who are paid to make those decisions.
And even though the Orioles balked on a two-year deal with closer Grant Balfour because of health concerns last year, a move that was met with criticism at the time because it was on the heels of trading closer Jim Johnson, it turned out that neither Balfour or Johnson had good 2014 seasons.
Whether Markakis’ deal with the Braves will be “worth it” won’t be decided for several years, but there’s also something often forgotten in this risk-reward environment.
At the end of the day, the Braves got a player the Orioles wanted – and needed – for the long haul. Will the risk of pulling back from that fourth year overcome the cost of replacing Markakis on and off the field?
The Orioles are now presented with the challenge of diving into a shrinking outfield free-agent market to replace both Markakis and Nelson Cruz.
But it’s also the message it sends to players inside the Orioles clubhouse. Markakis not was an instrumental part of the Orioles turnaround, but despite his flaws, he epitomized “The Oriole Way.”
Fans wore his name and number with pride. His teammates saw how he led by example, how he played every day through nagging injuries, how he embraced the leadoff spot for the benefit of the team and how he gave everything he had in the name of winning.
I’ll remember the sight of Markakis showing rare emotion on the night the Orioles clinched the American League East in September. It was an uncommon display of satisfaction for Markakis after so many days – and years – of grinding toward one goal.
When it comes to Markakis, the sense is that the Orioles weren’t outbid by the Braves, but that they just didn’t make a very strong push to keep him.
By winning, the Orioles have created an atmosphere where players want to play and want to stay. It wasn’t that way not long ago.
Cruz said he wanted to remain in Baltimore, and the Orioles weren’t willing to give him a four-year deal. Still, that move was understandable because Cruz will be 35 next year and the Orioles had seen his best on a one-year deal.
But Markakis was different.
From the time he signed with the Orioles as a first-round pick in 2003, he did everything right and everything that was asked. Loyalty doesn’t often go very far in this game when it comes to free agency, but Markakis showed over his career how much being an Oriole meant to him.
And now, the Orioles will have a big challenge in replacing No. 21.