Strength back, beard gone as Markakis arrives at Braves camp

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — There was a buzz surrounding Nick Markakis’ arrival at Braves spring training camp, and the fact that he appears to have regained his strength after an offseason that didn’t include rehab only part of the reason for it.

The beard is gone, shaved the day before.

"Got down here, and it was too hot for it," Markakis said Thursday. "I’m sure it will come back."

Now he and the Braves are hoping his power and arm strength do the same.

As Markakis took batting practice for the first time this spring, he drove one ball over the outfield wall. Then another, and another.

"There you go," said catcher A.J. Pierzynski. "Four homers in BP."

They certainly don’t count, but those shots are proof of months of work for Markakis.

"I like to think I did everything I can this offseason," the 32-year-old right fielder said. "Offseasons get shorter and shorter as you get older. It was a good offseason, a productive offseason and I’m where I think I need to be."

After inking a four-year, $44 million contract with the Braves in December 2014, Markakis underwent surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck, and was unable to do any physical activities for two months before spring training.

His strength diminished, Markakis’ power numbers slipped and he hit a career-low three home runs, the first coming on July 20 — a drought that lasted 393 plate appearances.

He also had minus-6 defensive runs saved after saving one run in ’14 and he committed an error June 25, one week after setting the MLB record for most errorless games by an outfielder that was snapped at 398.

To his credit, Markakis remained durable with 156 games played and was still the team’s leader with 181 hits while posting a .296/.370/.376 slash line — the average was his best in four seasons — and he made up for the lack of homers with 38 doubles, his highest total since 2010.

"I was just happy to be healthy," Markakis said. "At the end of the year, I did everything I could. Were there some things I needed to work on? Sure. That’s what I addressed this offseason."

Because of that, he believes he enters this offseason closer to the player that, who in Baltimore, hit no fewer than 10 homers a season and averaged 16 during his nine seasons there.

"It’s just a matter of working hard and building your strength back up to what you’re used to," he said.

Markakis admits that if he didn’t play baseball he may never have gone through the procedure last winter, but it became a necessity given the position he plays.

"When I did have the herniation, it was a matter of if I dove or something and landed the wrong way it could end up pretty bad," he said. "That surgery was to go in there and present anything like that."

There had been speculation since late last season that the Braves may consider moving Markakis to left field should his arm strength not entirely return. Whether that is still a possibility likely hinges on the development of Hector Olivera, who is moving to left field after 168 innings at third base in 2015 in which he saved minus-one run.

But as one of the most consistent pieces in an offense that was the lowest scoring in baseball last season, Markakis provides value at the plate — whether the power numbers are there or not.

With two more years remaining on this contract, he’ll be expected to be there when the Braves transition to SunTrust Park in 2017, pieces of what is now the majors’ best farm system providing a further boost.

As he watched the retooling of Atlanta’s farm system, it seemed eerily familiar to Markakis.

"I’ve been in this situation for years when I was over at Baltimore," he said. "It’s a process, a slow process and nothing’s going to happen over night. … It’s just a matter of time and things will square out."

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His book, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ comes out April 5, 2016.