“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?” — Joni Mitchell, singing about Nick Markakis, probably
It’s hard to say a guy ranked among the top 20 Orioles of all time could be considered underrated. But perhaps a better descriptor of Markakis would be underappreciated. For nearly a decade, the homegrown right fielder was a mainstay in the Orioles’ lineup, but he was rarely its biggest star. He wasn’t the flashiest player, and he certainly wasn’t the most vocal; Nick’s unfailingly boring, monotone responses in media interviews became a running joke among O’s fans. And Markakis joined the Birds when they were at the peak of irrelevance and ineptitude. They’d had eight straight losing seasons before his call-up and six more after he arrived.
And so a strange thing happened to one of the best players in franchise history: Nick Markakis was sort of taken for granted. It wasn’t until he left that the Orioles realized what they’d lost.
The fateful decision to part ways with Markakis came after the 2014 season, his ninth in Baltimore, when the defending AL East champion Birds let three big-name free agents walk: Markakis, Nelson Cruz, and Andrew Miller. Again speaking to Nick’s underratedness, some fans considered Markakis the least significant loss of the three. Cruz was the prodigious slugger and 2014 Most Valuable Oriole who’d led the majors in home runs. Miller was the shutdown lefty throwing triple digits at the back of the pen. But Markakis? He was coming off a good-not-great season and was slated for neck surgery that December, so the O’s declined his $17.5 million option and let him sign with the Braves for four years and $44 million. Surely he could be replaced, thought then-general manager Dan Duquette and the Orioles front office.
Turns out it wasn’t so easy.
As Markakis uncharacteristically delivered some pointed barbs in the Orioles’ direction, Duquette repeatedly tried and failed to find a new right fielder who could both hit and field like Markakis. In the six years since, the O’s have never had the same primary right fielder in two consecutive seasons. In 2015, Duquette traded lefty prospects Steven Brault and Stephen Tarpley for Travis Snider, and when that failed, he doubled down and gave away another solid young pitcher, Zach Davies, for another dud, Gerardo Parra (Brault, Tarpley, and Davies are all still active in the majors today). In 2016, the right field job went to Mark Trumbo, whose defense was so atrocious that it nearly canceled out his 47 homers. The O’s cycled through retiring veteran Seth Smith in 2017 and had 10 players start at the position in 2018, none for more than 31 games.
Duquette’s tenure ended after that ‘18 season with the O’s still facing a giant question mark in right field. Meanwhile, Markakis made his first All-Star team that year for Atlanta.
If the O’s had made a different decision with Markakis in that winter of 2014, would their fortunes have changed? Hard to say. But they certainly missed his steadying presence on the field.
Markakis burst onto the scene with the Birds in spring training of 2006. The then-22-year-old, the club’s first round pick (No. 7 overall) in the 2003 draft, wasn’t expected to crack the Opening Day roster despite having dominated Single-A and Double-A the previous year. But he put on such an impressive display in camp — a team-leading 24 hits and 11 walks — that he bypassed Triple-A entirely and made the big league club.
Markakis never looked back. He was an above average hitter from the get-go, batting .291/.351/.448 with 16 homers his first year, landing him sixth place in the AL Rookie of the Year vote.
A year later, he had his true breakout season, improving his numbers across the board, including a .300 average, 23 homers, 112 RBIs, and 43 doubles, his first of four straight seasons with at least that many two-baggers. Markakis could even run a little bit back then, stealing 18 bases, a total he hasn’t matched since. Another step forward in 2009, in which he posted an outstanding .406 OBP and scored 106 runs, convinced the Orioles to sign him to a six-year, $66.1 million extension, buying out his three arbitration years and first three years of free agency.
Markakis never quite returned to those lofty offensive levels of 2008 and 2009, but he remained an essential cog atop the Orioles’ batting order for the remainder of his tenure in Baltimore. Even as his powers numbers dipped, his ability to get on base was a much-needed component in an O’s lineup that was often filled with free-swinging sluggers. His .358 career OBP as an Oriole was the best of any player in the last 15 years who spent two or more seasons with the Birds.
On defense, Markakis carried a solid reputation, if not necessarily the numbers to prove it. Early in his career, he graded out well in advanced metrics like Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating — FanGraphs credited him with a career-best 22 DRS in 2008 — but those stats dipped perilously after that, with Markakis garnering negative marks most years. Still, he was awarded two Gold Gloves in right field for the Orioles, one in 2011 and the other in 2014 (he also earned one for the Braves in 2018).
While mostly unspectacular out there, Markakis was capable of a jaw-dropping catch from time to time:
Orioles fans could always count on Markakis to post up. He played 160 or more games in five different seasons with the Orioles, and only once did he miss more than 15 games. That happened in 2012 after CC Sabathia broke Nick’s thumb with a pitch during a critical September series. It robbed Markakis of a chance to play in the postseason for the first time, though he finally got to do it two years later for the stellar 2014 Orioles team. He hit .258 with one homer in the Birds’ seven playoff games, serving as his swan song in Baltimore.
Markakis is still plugging away in the majors, having just wrapped up his sixth year with the Braves after opting out and then opting back into the 2020 season. His club was a win away from advancing to the World Series before the eventual champion Dodgers took them down in a seven-game NLCS. He’s a free agent for the third straight winter, and with Markakis five days away from his 37th birthday, it’ll be interesting to see if he calls it a career. The pandemic ruined any outside shot Markakis might have had at reaching 3,000 hits; he’s currently at 2,388.
Nick Markakis won’t be a Hall of Famer. But the consistently impressive performer has a spot waiting for him in the Orioles Hall of Fame whenever he hangs up the spikes.