SARASOTA, FLA. — It would be too simplistic to say that Nick Markakis is at a crossroads.
Sure, when he took the field at the Ed Smith Stadium complex for the first full-squad workout of the spring on Wednesday morning it remained within the realm of possibility that this training camp could be his last in an Orioles uniform.
He's entering the final season of a six-year contract and he has never hidden his desire to play his entire career in Baltimore, but he didn't spend the winter trying to get into the best shape of his life so that he could strong-arm the team for an extension.
In fact, that seems like the last thing on his mind.
"No, my motivation is being healthy,'' he said. "It's no excuse but — 2012 and 2013 — three surgeries in nine months can zap you a little bit. It's tough to bounce back from that, but as far as being a free agent, being in a free agent year, it has nothing to do with that. It has to do with being healthy, being on a new workout regimen and being ready for the season.
"I tell people all the time, I've made a good bit of money already. It's not about the money, it's about being somewhere, wanting to be somewhere, being comfortable and taking pride in being with that team and that organization. I think the motivation for me this year is being healthy, feeling strong and going out there and helping this team win a World Series."
Okay, so there are going to be those who read that and think Markakis is just saying what you're supposed to say while your agent works behind the scene to get you a contract extension, but it's really not like that.
Markakis has been telling people for the last year or two how important it is to him to spend his entire career with the same organization.
That's why the last couple of seasons have been so tough; why he clearly views 2014 as an opportunity to re-establish himself as one of the team's top hitters and help take the Orioles to a level they have not been to in more than 30 years.
To that end, he changed just about everything about his offseason regimen and came back to camp visibly bigger and stronger than he departed a 2013 season that fell far short of his own expectations.
"I just completely switched trainers and everything about my offseason program was completely different from what I've been doing in the past,'' he said. "It's more along the lines of Chris Davis' program. Nolie's [Nolan Reimold] been doing it. It's kind of what they've brought here. We've been following it and everybody's been getting positive results out of it, so we'll see where it takes us."
Subtexts: There are a couple of subtexts here. Markakis has been a very vocal critic of baseball's steroid generation, and he seems intent on proving you can bulk up the right way.
He also saw, like everybody else, that the Orioles' power-packed lineup would have been even more productive last year with a greater on-base presence — something he had been before that pitch thrown by CC Sabathia broke Markakis' thumb in 2012.
"I think people forget about that, obviously, with him getting hit two years ago and missing some time,'' Davis said. "What people don't know is the last couple of years he's really battled some injuries, whether he's let on to being hurt or not. He's been a guy that hasn't really been 100 percent for awhile, and I think that when he's on top of his game, he is that guy. He hits lefties well. He hits righties well. He's had a great offseason."
We're not talking about a stretch of the imagination here. Markakis did have the worst offensive numbers of his career last year, but prior to the thumb injury, he had a .295 career batting average and a solid .365 on-base percentage.
"It's not like this guy has had a bunch of bad years,'' said manager Buck Showalter. "He spoiled us early on in his career when most guys aren't at that level. I think Nick's going to have a really good year. I do."
The Orioles went into the offseason looking for a good OBP hitter to add some connective tissue to their lineup. They didn't come back with anyone dynamic, but maybe they just need Markakis to re-assert himself.
"I think you'll see me back at that point this year,'' Markakis said. "I feel good. I feel confident. Those are the two main things — confidence and feeling good. I have them right now and like where I'm at, and I feel good about where I'm at right now."
If that translates into a great individual season and a strong playoff run for the club, everything else should take care of itself. Markakis loves the Orioles and has long been a favorite of ownership, so he has not even contemplated playing anywhere else.
"In a perfect world, I'd like to [stay here],'' he said. "A lot of people play this game for the wrong reasons. A lot of people play it where the money is. I get a bigger satisfaction being with the same team your whole career. Not many people get to do that. Not many people get to say that. To be able to do that would be a pretty cool experience. It would be something special to me."