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Nick Markakis agrees to four-year deal with Braves

Days after the Orioles' memorable 2014 season ended in the American League Championship Series, it seemed a foregone conclusion the club would be able to retain its longest-tenured player.

As weeks went by without a deal, optimism dissipated, and once other teams sensed right fielder Nick Markakis might be open to a change of scenery, one wasted little time.

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Markakis, who initially wanted to remain in Baltimore, agreed to terms Wednesday on a four-year, $44 million deal with the Atlanta Braves pending a physical, according to industry sources.

The Braves announced the agreement Wednesday night.

Markakis' departure came just two days after slugger Nelson Cruz agreed to a four-year deal with the Seattle Mariners — a combination gut punch to the Orioles' offseason.

Even though the Orioles appeared close to a four-year agreement with Markakis in October, which a source said was for less than what the Braves offered, the club became increasingly uncomfortable about offering Markakis a fourth year, according to sources.

The Orioles' hesitation was rooted in concern about Markakis' long-term health, specifically his neck, according to an industry source.

In March 2013, Markakis was diagnosed with a herniated disk in his neck, sidelining him through part of spring training, but he still made the Opening Day starting lineup. He played in 160 games that season and 155 this past year, but a bulging disk from the initial injury remained.

That fact concerned the Orioles, but according to a major league source, the Braves were aware of the disk and weren't concerned. The Braves reviewed a third-party examination of Markakis' neck and felt comfortable offering a four-year deal.

Markakis has played 155 or more games in seven of his nine seasons, including at least 160 games five times.

Atlanta worked quickly, sending a contingent of club officials, including manager Fredi Gonzalez, to Maryland to meet with Markakis on Monday night.

As recently as Tuesday, Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said he was working to re-sign Markakis, but the Orioles tried very little to retain the right fielder within the past month, an industry source said.

Duquette did not return a phone call Wednesday night.

Markakis, the Orioles' first-round MLB draft pick in 2003, was a rare homegrown product, playing his entire nine-year major league career in Baltimore and quickly becoming a fan favorite after cracking the Opening Day starting lineup as a 22-year-old rookie in 2006.

Over the past nine years, his quiet demeanor and blue-collar approach endeared Markakis to fans in Baltimore. He was one of the team's most recognizable players and one of the few who were part of the Orioles' emergence from a losing club to a World Series contender.

"I know I'm going to miss him as a friend and a teammate," said Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy, who said he spoke with Markakis on Wednesday before the news of his signing came out. "He's obviously a great guy, a leader by example. He wasn't too vocal, but I looked up to him and the way he kept his head down and played through everything. I respected that a lot. I feel bad for him because I think this is where he wanted to be. He wanted to be an Oriole for life. … I told him it [stinks] because it is a business."

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"I feel bad for him in a way, but I'm happy he got a good deal and in what I think is a good organization. It's a team that competes. I think he's in a good place, but I think we're all going to miss him in Baltimore, I think including the fans."

Markakis was a career .290/.358/.435 hitter with the Orioles and is sixth on the franchise's career list with 1,547 hits. He won his second Gold Glove this season and hasn't made an error in right field since Aug. 10, 2012, an errorless streak of 328 games, eight short of the American League record.

With the losses of Markakis and Cruz, the Orioles have two large holes to fill in their lineup and in their outfield. Center fielder Adam Jones remains the only remaining piece of the Orioles' 2014 Opening Day starting outfield.

"It's going to be different," Hardy said. "He's been there ever since I've been there. … He's not much of a vocal guy, but when you get to know him, he's a great teammate and we're definitely going to miss him. I think everyone will miss him. [We've lost] a couple of guys who helped us almost get to where we wanted to go in the end. … We'll see what happens. I guess it's early in the offseason for moves to be made. ... There's still confidence there that they're going to do everything to make us better, but we're definitely going to miss Nick."

Duquette said he hoped to re-sign both Cruz and Markakis at the end of the season. And while Cruz — who received multiple three-year offers from the Orioles — seemed to be a stretch to keep since he signed a one-year, make-good deal in February with the hopes of testing the market this offseason, Markakis seemed much more likely to stay.

Markakis made it clear he wanted to remain in Baltimore. He owns a home in the area and lives there year-round with his wife and three young boys. He also became involved in the community with several local charities. Markakis and his wife, Christina, served as ambassadors for the annual Casey Cares 5K at Camden Yards.

However, Markakis has strong Atlanta roots. He went to high school in Woodstock, Ga., which is about 20 minutes from the Braves' new ballpark, set to open in 2017. He also attended Young Harris College in northern Georgia.

Atlanta seemed to be a team in the midst of rebuilding — it has been rumored the Braves are looking to unload players such as Justin Upton and Evan Gattis — but once Atlanta saw Markakis could be available, they pursued him aggressively and got a deal done quickly. They had a hole to fill in right field after trading Jason Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals last month.

Despite the Orioles' reluctance to give both Cruz and Markakis four-year deals, other clubs have not shown such restraint this offseason. The AL East-rival Red Sox signed both Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval to five-year deals and the Toronto Blue Jays snagged catcher Russell Martin for five years. Designated hitter Victor Martinez inked a four-year, $68 million deal and Cruz went to Seattle for four years, $58 million.

The Orioles reached out to the Los Angeles Dodgers to inquire about outfielder Matt Kemp in case they lost both Cruz and Markakis, but talks didn't get far after the Dodgers asked about the organization's top pitching prospects, right-handers Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy. The Orioles also reportedly had some interest in veteran Torii Hunter, but he inked a one-year, $10.5 million deal with the Minnesota Twins.

Shoring up the outfield undoubtedly will become a top priority for the Orioles at next week's winter meetings in San Diego. Outfielders Michael Morse, a former Oriole, and Melky Cabrera are still on the market. The Orioles could also reach to the farm system to test whether Cuban outfielder Dariel Alvarez, who has plus defensive skills but a still-developing bat, is ready to contribute in the big leagues.

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