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01/21/09 6:55 PM EST

O's finalize six-year deal with Markakis

Budding star locked up through arbitration years for $66 million

BALTIMORE -- The Orioles announced a six-year contract extension for Nick Markakis on Wednesday, echoing a story first reported Monday by the Baltimore Sun and later confirmed by MLB.com. Markakis signed on with the Orioles for $66 million, a deal that will take him through his arbitration years and delay his first shot at free agency until 2014.

And beyond tying him to the team, the contract has greater significance. Markakis now has a contract comparable to the two largest in franchise history -- those given out to free agents Miguel Tejada and Albert Belle -- and it helps the outfielder emerge as perhaps the team's most recognizable player, next to infielders Melvin Mora and Brian Roberts.

Markakis, who has settled in as a run producer and defensive stalwart in right field, has posted a .299 career batting average through his first three seasons. That average makes him one of just 46 players who have done that or better in their first three big league seasons, and 18 of those players went on to make the Hall of Fame.

The former first-round Draft pick first popped up on the radar in 2005, when he was named the Brooks Robinson Award winner as Baltimore's top Minor League player. Despite having played just 33 games at Double-A Bowie by that point, Markakis impressed the team's executives in Spring Training and made the parent club in 2006.

Markakis started slowly that season, but he picked up as the year progressed and wound up setting a team record for the highest batting average (.291) for a player during his rookie season. Markakis improved further in 2007, batting .300 with 23 home runs and 112 RBIs, being named Most Valuable Oriole by the local media.

Hot Stove

Markakis outdid himself in 2008, setting career highs in average (.306), on-base percentage (.406) and slugging percentage (.491). He also led the American League with 17 outfield assists and finished in the top 10 in the AL in average, OBP, games played (157), walks (99), doubles (48), runs (106), hits (182) and extra-base hits (69).

The 25-year-old ranks seventh in franchise history in batting average and 10th in slugging percentage (.476), and now he'll be tied to the team through his prime years. Markakis delayed his first shot at free agency by three years when he signed his contract, giving the Orioles a franchise cornerstone for the foreseeable future.

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.