tampabay.com

Rocco set to turn glimpses to full picture

Recovered Baldelli ready to display tools.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 18, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - Amid all the questions surrounding Rocco Baldelli's return to the Devil Rays last year, it turned out he had one, too.

"I think I had to prove to myself that I could still play," Baldelli said. "With really a new knee and a new elbow, I had to prove to myself that I could compete - that I could still run and still throw and do those things."

Hamstring problems that popped up in the middle of spring training delayed his much-anticipated return until June 7. But he made up for it with an impressive and encouraging performance, playing a strong centerfield, hitting .302 with 16 homers and 57 RBIs, and showing that despite the left knee and right elbow surgeries that sidelined him for 2005 he could still be an impact player.

"I felt good about it," he said. "I didn't know what to expect, to be honest. I was just going to play and look at it afterward. How it went down, I'll take that."

Manager Joe Maddon, having seen glimpses of Baldelli in 2003-04, was impressed - specifically that Baldelli had more power, arm strength and speed than he had thought. "He's got this combination of grace and power, and that's different," Maddon said. "You don't see that often."

Equally impressed was Ty Wigginton, who had played against Baldelli briefly in the minors: "He's really a five-tool player."

The Rays handled Baldelli, 25, with care when he came back, and Maddon is planning similar treatment at least to start the season - giving him day games off after night games, not playing him in bad weather, checking in with him daily to make sure there are no risks.

"We saw what he can do, and in August and September he really tore it up," Maddon said. "We keep him well, you'll see that most of the year. ... And I want this young man to be well for many years to come."

The plan, which also creates more playing time for reserves Elijah Dukes and/or B.J. Upton, could help Baldelli play his first full season since his 2003 debut, and he said, "to a level, I think it's probably the right thing to do."

But it also could be costly. Baldelli gets only a $750,000 salary this season as part of his six-year deal, but with a full season could make an extra $4-million - up to $1.75-million more in plate-appearance incentives and, with 600, doubling next year's salary from $2.25-million to $4.5-million.

Baldelli, who negotiated the contract himself, said he plans to play "as many games as I can and still feel good and be able to recover the next day." He is not troubled by the potential conflict, and doesn't expect it to be an issue on either side.

"I will worry about that when the time comes, and that time isn't right now," he said. "If it's close at the end of the season, then there's nothing I can do about it. Spending time thinking about it isn't really going to change anything. I'm going to do my treatment, be out there to play when they have me in the lineup, and I think everything else will take care of itself."

Having shown what he can do on the field, Baldelli knows the question now is whether he can stay on the field. Every assessment, every comment seems to include a qualifying phrase - even the good ones.

Whether it's Maddon saying Baldelli could be considered among the game's elite "if he can get out there on a consistent basis." Or teammate Carl Crawford saying, "The main thing with Rocco is just hoping he can stay healthy a whole season." Or senior vice president Gerry Hunsicker saying "when healthy" he's shown he is among the game's best. Or Wigginton saying "when he does stay healthy" he can win a Gold Glove.

As tiring as it may be, Baldelli said he's used to the questions, just like people used to doubt whether he was strong enough to play in the majors, or whether he had enough discipline at the plate. And it's not that he doesn't appreciate the concern, but he hasn't really had a choice in the matter.

"I just go out there," Baldelli said. "This is my life. I try to go out there and play. It's not fun getting hurt.

"I've always felt that if I can stay healthy and be out there I'd be able to take care of myself. And I'd be fine."

Marc Topkin can be reached at 727 893-8801 or topkin@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS:

Rockin' Rocco

Rocco Baldelli did well when he rejoined the Rays on June 7. But if what he did the last two months, primarily in the leadoff spot (47 games, .323 average, 60 hits, 11 homers, 28 RBI), is an indication of what he can do over a full season, he could really be special:

G Avg. H HR RBI

2006 actual stats 92 .302 110 16 57

Projected* season stats 162 .323 207 38 97

* based on Aug./Sept. performance Source: Times research