Braves’ Markakis unsure if he’ll be ready for Opening Day

Nick Markakis signed a four-year, $44 million contract with the Braves two weeks before his Dec. 17 neck surgery. 

David Goldman/AP

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Craig Kimbrel leaned over two lockers and shook hands with Nick Markakis on the day position players reported to Braves’ camp, one of a number of similar moments on a team with a revamped roster.

"Craig, good to meet you," said Kimbrel, who now after five years, is the longest tenured Atlanta player.

Of the organization’s additions, it’s Markakis that comes in with the most impressive resume, boasting two Gold Gloves, the second of which came last season.

He also arrived Wednesday with a small scar on the front of his bearded neck, the remnant of Dec. 17 fusion surgery to repair a herniated disk.

While he’s pleased with his recovery and was cleared by his doctor with no limitations, the right fielder doesn’t expect to be available when spring training games begin next week and is unsure if he’ll be ready for the April 6 opener.

"(Opening Day) always a goal," he said. "It’s one of those things you work for and try to get there as far as an injury standpoint. It’s not something you want to rush. (It’s a) neck injury and neck surgery’s a pretty serious surgery. … I’ve got five or six weeks to do my thing and try to get ready for Opening Day."

Manager Fredi Gonzalez, though, seemed more optimistic that Markakis could be ready.

"I really do, for Opening Day of regular season," he said. "For Opening Day of spring training? I’m not going to do it."

Gonzalez is planning on holding Markakis back for 3-4 games this spring to give him time to become acclimated.

"We’re going to ease him in," he said.

Brought in to replace Jason Heyward, who was dealt to the Cardinals, Markakis said he informed the Braves he would need surgery before inking a four-year, $44 million free-agent contract.

"I knew before I signed," he said. "It was just a matter of letting people know my situation. The Braves knew my situation before everything went down and they were OK with it and I was OK with it."

A career .290/.358/.435 hitter, the neck issue had bothered Markakis for much of the past two seasons, which were also the first of a nine-year run spent entirely with the Orioles in which he had an on-base percentage below .347 and posted sub-.400 slugging percentages as well.

But he rarely missed any time, playing 160 games in 2013 and 155 in ’14 and last season had a 2.5 WAR, his best since a 6.1 in ’08.

It’s that workmanlike approach that’s part of what Kelly Johnson, a teammate of Markakis’ in Baltimore who is in camp on a minor-league deal, believes makes him so valuable.

"He’s a quiet guy, super pro. He does his thing," Johnson said. "The guy’s a baseball player. He’s just one of those guys that over the course of time you know what you’re going to get, he does the exact same thing: tough at-bat; put the ball in play; catches every ball; great right fielder; makes every play."

Not only is Markakis moving into Heyward’s position, but he’s doing so wearing the same number (No. 22). As much as Freddie Freeman, a closer friend of Heyward’s, hated to see him go, he sees a lot to like in Markakis.

"I’ve seen Nick playing for a lot of years, he’s pretty good himself," Freeman said. "He’s got a couple Gold Gloves and hopefully he can bring that (here) and be at the top of the lineup and get on base for the guys in the middle."

While he has yet to play an inning for the Braves, Markakis was already in the fold before the team ramped up its makeover, which included Justin Upton being dealt to the Padres and shipping Evan Gattis to the Astros.

In all, the Braves would make eight trades after he signed Dec. 3.

Watching from afar, Markakis seemed pleased with the overall changes, which resulted in more than half of the team’s 40-man roster changing uniforms.

"You’ve got to trust in the guys that you work for," he said. "That’s their job. That’s what they do and you can’t complain with the moves that they’ve made, building on top of what they had."

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney