tampabay.com

A decision that will define Rays

Baldelli may be so valuable as trade bait that the Rays could ignore the inherent risks and criticisms and move him in exchange for pitching help.

By JOHN ROMANO
Published December 7, 2006


LAKE BUENA VISTA

His value has always been easy to measure.

Rocco Baldelli was so impressive as a high school baseball player in Rhode Island that the Devil Rays made him the No. 6 pick in the 2000 draft.

Baldelli was so talented as a major-leaguer that, even coming off two major surgeries, the Rays gave him a long-term contract at age 24.

And now Baldelli may be so valuable as trade bait that the Rays could ignore the inherent risks and criticisms and move him in exchange for pitching help.

If the notion sounds unpleasant, it should. Everything about Baldelli screams keeper. His talent, his contract, his attitude. He is the type of player a team such as the Rays would normally covet as a building block.

But the shape of Tampa Bay's roster may make Baldelli even more valuable on his way out of town than he was on his way in.

This is the decision facing Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman. Play it conservative and keep Baldelli in centerfield, or venture out on a shaky limb and deal Baldelli sometime this offseason.

It is, without question, Friedman's toughest test yet in the trade market. It is a move that is not financially motivated, nor blatantly obvious.

Dealing Julio Lugo was not that difficult. That was a question of salary and age. Ditto for Aubrey Huff and Toby Hall and Danys Baez. Dewon Brazelton was a head case, and Joey Gathright was a spare part.

This is different. This is a player about to enter his prime. A player with a market-friendly salary. A player who could be a star for the next decade.

Frankly, this is a player who will measure Friedman's gumption.

Maybe that explains why, along with computers, a Bill James handbook, an easel and multiple telephones in the Rays hotel suite, sits a bottle of aspirin.

You see, this is the type of trade that could define a front office. A general manager may get a pass for a salary dump, but swapping a productive young player is like putting your signature on a blank canvas. You have to be darned confident that the final product is going to come out looking good.

In this case, it is not the concept of the trade that is so difficult. Not when you're flush with outfielder-types and you're desperate for pitching.

It is the execution that gets dicey. First of all, do the Rays trade Baldelli or Carl Crawford? Or Delmon Young? Or B.J. Upton?

Crawford is probably too valuable to risk dealing, and Upton's current stock is too low. Young might bring some intriguing options, but his potential is probably far greater than his trade value.

Given the right offer, the Rays would move any of those players, but the timing and circumstances make those deals seem less likely.

Which leaves Baldelli.

And it leaves Friedman with a large target on his back.

There are plenty of teams who would be willing to swap a handful of minor-leaguers in exchange for Baldelli, but Friedman won't do that. And he shouldn't.

The time for trading for prospects has passed. For a player of Baldelli's caliber, or Crawford if it comes to that, the Rays need pitchers who have already proven themselves in the majors.

"We're not going to trade a bigger piece for something that's going to help us in two years," Friedman said. "We're done with that."

And that's the challenge facing Friedman. He needs to get one, maybe two, starting pitchers who will remain in Tampa Bay's control for 4-5 years.

The chances of that happening are not real strong. Good pitchers are baseball's greatest commodity, and good pitchers who are still years from free agency are treated like gold.

That means teams are going to come at the Rays with less-than-appealing offers. They'll offer prospects who are not yet proven. They'll offer major leaguers who do not have much upside. They'll offer their leftovers, and Friedman needs to turn those offers into something that makes sense for Tampa Bay.

Friedman points out that the Rays are not being held at gunpoint. They are under no mandate to trade one of their young outfielders.

Yet, for all the rhetoric, Friedman knows a trade makes sense.

He knows spring training will be easier if Crawford is in left, Young is in right and Upton, or even Elijah Dukes, replaces Baldelli.

He knows the Rays cannot afford a Jason Schmidt or a Barry Zito or a Ted Lilly in the open market, and that a trade is the best option for pitching.

He knows, in the end, that it is his responsibility to use his abundance of outfield talent to fill the holes in his pitching rotation.

It makes complete sense.

Just so long as you don't mess it up.