Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Baldelli Conundrum

It's one of the cardinal rules of sports: talent always gets a second chance. And a third. And a fourth. And so on.

Carlos Pena was a first round pick by Texas in 1998, but bounced around five different American League organizations before landing an every day job in Tampa last year at age 29 and fulfilling long-deferred projections of stardom. Pena set club records for home runs, RBI, walks, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

Knowing that a talented but enigmatic player might figure it out later on can be a complicating factor for organizational decision-making. If you're the Rays, fresh off finding the shiny quarter that is Carlos Pena, what do you do with Rocco Baldelli? A 26-year-old outfielder, Baldelli is a classic 'what if' guy who flashes tantalizing speed and power between increasing intervals of time lost to injuries.

Drafted in the first round (6th overall) in the 2000 amateur draft out of high school in Warwick, Rhode Island, Baldelli rose quickly through the minors, peaking as the #2 prospect in the land in 2003. He also debuted in the majors in 2003 at the age of 21, putting together a solid season that culminated in a third place finish in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. Perhaps most notably, Baldelli accumulated more than 670 plate appearances over 156 games. In terms of durability, it was all down hill from there.

In 2004, he managed 136 games. Over the subsequent three seasons, he totaled 127 games, missing the 2005 campaign entirely. In between ailments, he nevertheless offered glimpses of something close to greatness - or at least very goodness. In 2006, he put up a triple-slash line of .302/.339/.533, with 16 HR, 57 RBI and 10 SB in just 364 at bats. Pro-rated to 600 at bats, Baldelli would have had 320 total bases, good for 10th in the American League - a fine season for a 24-year-old.

Alas, that Baldelli looks like something of a mirage now.

For all intents and purposes, health is a skill that Rocco does not possess. It's no surprise that he's frustrated and defensive:
I’ve been tested for everything under the sun, the whole gamut, trying to find the stem of what all these problems are that I’m having. I can tell you I don’t have MS, there’s no chance. … I know it sounds bad when I’m denying specific things.
He's right, it does sound bad. Can you ever remember a professional athlete so injury prone that he has to specifically deny having multiple sclerosis?

Baldelli's career is at a crossroads, and it comes at a bad time for him. While he has yet to make an appearance this spring, Tampa is forced to make a decision on Baldelli's 2009 option - essentially whether he fits in the team's plans for the future - by April 1.

Baldelli's 2009 option would cost the team $6 million. Even with baseball's escalating salary structure, that seems like an easy no given his precarious health. However, the buy out is $4 million, so the net cost to the team of retaining Baldelli for 2009 is $2 million.

Smart organizations ignore sunk costs. Two million isn't a huge sum in the baseball universe, but it was more than enough to snap up Pena last year or the talented but flawed Corey Patterson this year, or even to make a big splash in Latin America. For a small market team, every $2 million counts.

Still, you have to wonder if emotion will enter the picture in this case. One doesn't have to delve too far into the past to find a time when Baldelli was viewed as one of the cornerstones of the next (first) great Rays squad. A team never wants to give up a player like that for nothing, particularly if he could come back to haunt them in another uniform. Tampa's fans are scarred by sour memories of Josh Hamilton's departure. Hamilton was drafted by Tampa in 1999, the year before Baldelli, and was the #1 overall pick in the draft. Tampa watched him flash prodigious talent in the minors briefly before losing him to addiction.

When team control over Hamilton lapsed and forced a decision about his future, Tampa made him available in the Rule 5 draft in December 2006. Cincinnati took a chance on him and it paid off. Tampa fans who had suffered through the highs and lows of the Hamilton saga for SEVEN years saw him resurrect his career just months later in somebody else's town. It was like putting down a Russian novel after 700 pages only to hear from somebody else that the book had a Hollywood ending and that Steven Spielberg is doing the film adaptation.

It's a fascinating conundrum. It should be easy to say goodbye to a chronically frustrating player who apparently has legs made of vermicelli.

Yet, having snapped up Carlos Pena for nothing, and having lost Josh Hamilton for nada, haven't the Rays' experienced both the positive and negative reinforcement of always giving talent another chance?

While the numbers of can't miss prospects who miss are legion, teams will always value tools and talent. Some team will gamble on Rocco Baldelli. Will it be Tampa? We'll know soon enough.

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