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The Hammy Whammy Again

"It was not clear when Baldelli will play. Manager Joe Maddon said it could be Saturday or Sunday but almost definitely 'by the beginning of next week.'"

No, these comments didn't come in today's St. Pete Times. They actually came from an article in the March 24, 2006, edition of the Times, although the comments may seem similar to what you're hearing today. The Rays are optimistic, Rocco Baldelli isn't so sure, and the season starts with Baldelli as a question mark again. Is this just a minor injury at an inopportune time? Or is this the sign of a serious problem for the Rays?

Every sport has one of "those" athletes. In fact, any team that has been around long enough in sports (say at least ten years) has one of "those" athletes. The athlete that has all the talent in the world yet for some reason his or her body fails to keep up with the demands of a professional sport. After some time that "can't miss" talent misses because of a string of neverending injuries, and not necessarily because the athlete did anything wrong.

I hope and pray Rocco Baldelli does not become one of "those" athletes. Plain and simple when he is healthy he's a helluva ball player. He can hit, he can run, he can make some great plays in the outfield despite his throwing arm not being at the level of "dazzling". On top of that he's just a nice guy and you hate to see nice guys go through what Baldelli has gone through the last three years. Despite the hopes that Baldelli's body doesn't rob him of an outstanding baseball career, you have to wonder how long this is going to go on and when the Rays will have enough of it.

Now let me stop here so I can tell you I am not saying the Rays just need to dump him now, or even within the next few years. Baldelli did just turn 25 and we've seen the glimpses of what he could be if he stays healthy. A statistacal comparison of the 384 games he's played since 2003 by has him linked to quite a few decent players.

In overall numbers, he's linked to Chad Tracy, David DeJesus, and Grady Sizemore. When you take those numbers and compare them to other players through age 24, you get Ellis Burks, Carlos Beltran, and Vernon Wells. What's really interesting is when you compare those numbers to non-active players through their 24th birthdays: Carl Yastrzemski, Tris Speaker, and Gary Matthews, Sr. The first two are well-known Hall-of-Famers while the third was an underrated outfielder who played on some very bad baseball teams throughout the 1970s and 80s. But there is another name Baldelli compares well with now, and one you hope he outperforms down the road-- J.D. Drew.

Like Baldelli, Drew was a high first-round draft pick (6th overall) in the 1998 draft for the St. Louis Cardinals, although unlike Baldelli Drew had to go through the abuse of Phillies fans for years since he refused to sign for them in 1997 when they drafted him high in the first round. Like Baldelli, Drew was a "can't miss" player who even played 14 games in the majors just weeks after he was drafted. But also like Baldelli, Drew was saddled with injuries early on in his career. Interestingly, if you include the 14-game stint in 1998, Drew played 372 games in his first four seasons which brings him just 12 games shy of Baldelli's total games played over four years. Like Baldelli, the batting average improved, more home runs were hit, and the RBI started creeping up. But Drew's constant injuries held him back from being that great player everyone hoped he'd be. Granted, he's still a very good player when healthy, but that injury-free greatness has eluded him with the exception of his almost completely healthy 2004 season with Atlanta.

Drew couldn't put together a completely healthy season in six years with St. Louis, making him expendable via a trade with Atlanta in 2003. Despite that great season with the Braves, he was free to play the free agency game and he won with a big contract in Los Angeles. After playing only 218 games in two seasons with the Dodgers, he was let go again to persue free agency. Somehow, he ended up getting $70 million over five years in Boston. If Drew could play 162 games, he would projectively average a .286 batting average, 27 homers, and 86 RBI. But that's a big "if", one that has plagued him since his early days.

I'm afraid Baldelli is becoming that big "if" for the Rays. He is, based on his previous performance, projected to put up similar numbers to Drew if he can stay healthy. While the Rays would gladly take a .289 average, 18 homers, and 88 RBI any season, those numbers pale in comparison to what Baldelli was expected to put up when he started his big league career (think twice the homers and 100+ RBI). The only thing that has limited Baldelli from reaching those projected numbers is consistent health. While this hamstring injury may just be what the Rays hope it is, a minor injury that will sideline him for a few days, the neverending string of injuries that has slowed Baldelli should be alarming.

So the big question is when and if the Rays do what the Cardinals did with Drew. The good news for Rays fans and to an extent Baldelli, is maybe not too soon if ever. Drew was jettisoned when he was 27 and just one year away from free agency. With the Cardinals' notorious tight spending (not "tight" in terms of total payroll, but tight in the sense of not increasing payroll beyond an established point every season) it almost seemed certain Drew was going to be let go any way by 2004. The Rays have Baldelli signed through next season with team options through 2011 in a very franchise-friendly deal. So if Baldelli can string together a few almost completely healthy seasons while contributing to the team on a nightly basis, then all may seem well.

But as we play the "what if?" game, the question has to be asked; "What if Baldelli can't put together a couple of healthy seasons?" With salaries of $6 million, $8 million, and $9 million from 2009-2011, respectively, if Baldelli can't stay healthy when do you decide he probably never will? Do you keep him on board in the hopes he finally has a healthy season, or do you pay him millions of dollars to ride a stationary bike more often that not? My hunch is that tough decision will have to be made prior to the 2010 season. The 2009 contract is in the favor of the organization since a buyout would cost $4 million dollars. In 2010 the buyout is only $2 million against an $8 million salary. By 2010 the Rays will have a much clearer picture on if Baldelli can play an entire season, and if the team is competitive enough to keep him or trade him away.

In the meantime we'll just guess about Baldelli's status, and hope he'll be a regular fixture in the Rays' lineup. For now Elijah Dukes and maybe even B.J. Upton are your centerfielders. For Baldelli's sake I can only hope he gets healthy soon and stays healthy for a long time. I know this string of injuries is driving him even more crazy than the fans who hope he can get healthy.

And for the sake of the Rays organization, I hope Baldelli stays healthy enough to prove he is an important cog in the growth of the Rays and not just one of "those" athletes the team will have to part with a few years down the road.

And now, three quick notes not related to Baldelli:

* Last week I wrote about the Rays' lack of a lefty in the bullpen, an approach I thoroughly disagree with for a number of reasons. Last week I ran in to a friend of mine (who shall remain unnamed) who is a frequent visitor to this website. He agreed with me on every point and said I should have taken the column one step further. Since I didn't, I'll let you go one step beyond with my friend's question: Why, in the 12 seasons this organization has been around, have the Rays NOT been able to produce one or two solid left-handed relievers?

* Last week I commented on a story regarding the Rays' poor spring training record, at that time it was 1-13. If you didn't read the comment, let me just state it again here. Pay no attention to what happened prior to this Monday's day off. The real measuring stick for this team (and all teams really) is from now through the end of spring training. With most of the minor league kids sent back down, now you can see what your team is really made of.

* Finally, I purchased Sports Mogul's Baseball 2008 yesterday. To say the least it is an awesome game, much-improved over previous versions. If you're a stats geek or fantasy player, I recommend this game if you haven't played it yet. I've bought every version since 2003 and I spend much of my free time playing it, much to the chagrin of my wife.