tampabay.com

A keeper Rays can't count on

By JOHN ROMANO
Published September 5, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - In a world without misery, he would be a star. In a universe where everyone gets exactly what he deserves, his name would be in lights and his feats would be celebrated.

But such places do not exist, and Rocco Baldelli is not yet a phenomenon.

These days, he is barely even a ballplayer.

Once more, a Devil Rays season is nearing its conclusion and Baldelli's future is a mystery. The Rays have been unusually quiet about his health, and they have asked him to keep his silence, too.

All we know for sure is Baldelli is a long way from having the presence we once imagined. He is sidelined with a hamstring injury. Again. He will miss the majority of a season. Again. His future is in doubt and his durability is in question.

It is frustrating, yes. It is costly, too. But, mostly, it is just sad. Baldelli is a terrific guy with abysmal luck. He has torn up a knee, blown out an elbow and been saddled with the most cranky 25-year-old hamstrings in creation.

Once, it was considered simple misfortune. A string of regrettable, yet unrelated, circumstances. Now, you have to wonder whether something is causing Baldelli to break down. Some other physical condition that has made him more susceptible to injury than the normal athlete, which is why the Rays have ordered a battery of tests as a precaution.

So let's pray Baldelli checks out fine. Let's assume, heaven willing, he has no major health concerns.

Then what do the Rays do?

If he does not return in September, Baldelli will have missed 348 of Tampa Bay's past 486 games. And, worst of all, we are less certain about his potential today than we were a year ago.

That's a problem in the front office. For they are reaching a point where decisions have to be made elsewhere on the team, and it is impossible to know where Baldelli fits in the equation.

Is B.J. Upton's future in centerfield? That could depend on Baldelli. Should the Rays consider trading Carl Crawford or Delmon Young for starting pitching? That might depend on Baldelli. And what about the chances Baldelli could be a designated hitter, and impact the future of Jonny Gomes?

All are contingency decisions and do not even address the most basic question:

Should the Rays pick up Baldelli's 2009 option?

It is an unusual contract situation because it must be resolved six months ahead of schedule. The Rays must decide by next April whether they will guarantee Baldelli $6-million in '09, and activate a $2-million buyout for 2010. If they do not pick up the option, they must give him a $4-million buyout, and he will be a free agent at the end of next season.

To break it down simply, that's $8-million to keep him and $4-million to let him go.

For a guy who will have been healthy for about 28 percent of your games over a three-year period, an $8-million commitment does seem extreme. And the Rays would be wise to pause before leaping.

But, in the end, they should do it.

It may hurt to pay him that kind of cash, but it would hurt even more to lose him. He has broken down three seasons in a row, but he is still weeks away from his 26th birthday and still has a world of potential. You don't kiss that goodbye over $4-million.

So, once you decide to keep Baldelli in a Rays uniform, where does he fit in personnel decisions?

Nowhere.

The Rays should retain Baldelli, but they cannot afford to count on him. In other words, you decide Upton's future as if Baldelli is not in your plans. Ditto for Crawford and Young, and everyone else.

That way, if Baldelli does not reach his full potential, you have not created a problem by building your plans around him. And if he comes back better than ever, you now have a surplus of talent and a variety of options.

Once, he looked like a cornerstone. In 2003, he was 21 and on the verge of something special. Four years later, he has yet to move forward. In fact, he has taken several steps backward.

Crawford is now a bona fide star, Young is one of the game's top upcoming talents and Upton may be the most valuable of the bunch. In many ways, the Rays have already begun moving on without Baldelli.

That doesn't mean he is forgotten, and it doesn't presume his potential has run its course. It just suggests he is no longer a sure thing, and the Rays are correct in not counting on him as such.

So, for now, we continue to wait.

We wait for test results that hopefully rule out anything serious. We wait for a young man's hamstrings to completely heal. And we wait for Rocco Baldelli to be the ballplayer we once envisioned.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com or 727 893-8811.