The next player on the list of top Rays prospects of all-time was on his way to stardom, but repeated injuries, caused by a rare condition, robbed him of that opportunity.
20. SS Reid Brignac
19. RHP Matt White
18. RHP Chris Archer
17. RHP Wade Davis/LHP Jake McGee
16. RHP Jeremy Hellickson
15. 1B/LHP Brendan McKay
14. SS Tim Beckham
13. RHP Brent Honeywell
12. SS Willy Adames
11. OF Desmond Jennings
10. LHP Blake Snell
9. OF Wil Myers
8. LHP Scott Kazmir
7. 3B Evan Longoria
6. OF Rocco Baldelli
Acquired: No. 6 pick by Devil Rays (2000)
Baseball America Top-100 ranks: 2 (2002)
(Devil) Rays Top-30 ranks: 1 (2002), 5 (2001), 9 (2000)
League Top-20 ranks: 1 (2002 California League), 20 (2001 South Atlantic League)
League best tools: Most exciting player (2001 California League), Best defensive outfielder (2001 California League)
Because Baldelli’s career stopped, started again, and ended so abruptly, it’s easy to forget how highly touted he once was. He was the first player in the organization’s history to win Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year award.
Baldelli, the No. 6 pick in the 2000 draft, rocketed up the organization in 2002. He started the season with Bakersfield in the California League and dominated. He was later named the top prospect in the league by BA. In just 77 games, he slugged 14 home runs, 34 extra-base hits, and stole 21 bases in 27 attempts. He batted .333 with a .917 OPS.
Some players hit in the California League and later prove those performances to be flukes. He was not one of those players. In 17 games with Orlando in the Southern League, he was somehow even better, albeit in a small sample size. He batted .371 and improved his walk and strikeout rates.
It was a small sample size because the Devil Rays chose to promote him again, this time to Triple-A Durham. There, Baldelli’s performance did tail off a bit with no walks in 23 games, but he did bat .292 with a .469 slugging percentage. He was the seventh-youngest hitter in the Southern League that season and fifth youngest in the International League. It’s understandable that a 20 year old might not be at his best competing against minor league veterans.
Reading BA’s scouting report ($), it’s easy to see why he was the No. 2 prospect in baseball, only behind Mark Teixeira. He was a great athlete, and it showed on the bases and in the field. He made a lot of contact, and his bat speed gave him a lot of power potential. Because of his great work ethic, he had a chance to translate his tools into production.
Baldelli did not always perform well as a professional, however. In fact, he wasn’t good at all in his pro debut with Princeton. Again, that wasn’t too surprising -- teenagers from New England face a pretty big adjustment going to professional ball. Only eight players from New England states were drafted with picks higher than sixth. In 60 Appalachian League games, he batted .216 with a .269 OBP and .310 SLG.
In 2001, he moved up to full-season ball with Charleston in the South Atlantic League. His stats weren’t too impressive on the surface — he batted .249 with a .303 OBP and .394 SLG, but in context, that line looks a lot better. He was just 19, and the league averages were .246/.317/.362. With his solid performance and great athleticism, he was named the No. 20 prospect in the league by BA.
So it wouldn’t be quite fair to say his breakout 2002 season came out of nowhere. On one hand, he hadn’t performed like that at all to that point in his pro career, and it’s rare for a 20 year old to play at three levels and reach Triple A. On the other hand, he was a high draft pick with great physical tools.
Baldelli made an immediate impact with the Devil Rays in 2003. He was the eighth-youngest hitter in the majors, and he held his own. He batted .289 with a .326 OBP and .416 SLG with 11 homers and 27 steals in 156 games. He finished third in American League Rookie of the Year voting behind Angel Berroa and Hideki Matsui. He was arguably better than both.
The next season, he made improvements. He cut down on his strikeouts, improved his walk rate, and his OPS+ went from 99 to 100. Unfortunately, a pair of injuries prevented him from building on that success in 2005. He tore his ACL in the offseason, and during his recovery, he hurt his elbow and got Tommy John surgery.
Baldelli wouldn’t be back on the field until June 2006. When he came back, it looked like he had put it all together. In 92 games, he set career highs with a .302 average and .871 OPS. He slugged 16 homers and 46 extra-base hits with 10 steals in 11 tries.
Over the next four seasons, three with the Rays and one with the Red Sox, injuries limited him to 135 games. He would go on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, but the underlying problem was mitochondrial channelopathy, which causes fatigue. It was difficult for his body to recover, and even playing games on consecutive days became a challenge. It took years to reach this diagnosis and develop a plan to manage the condition.
Those seasons were difficult, but there were still highlights. He hit an ALCS home run, drove in a run in the Game 7 win over Boston, homered in the World series, and got a chance to play for the team he grew up watching. In 2010, he rejoined the Rays as a special assistant but eventually returned to the active roster. In his first at-bat, he homered. However, it would be his last season.
Baldelli is still just 36. If not for the bad hand he was dealt, he could still be playing. Even if he weren’t, he surely would have played in more than 519 games. With his talent, he probably would’ve made some All-Star teams. He wouldn’t have retired at 29.
But he was dealt that hand. Since retiring, he has worked in the Rays’ front office and on the on-field staff. After several seasons as the first-base coach, he was promoted to major league field coordinator, which ... I don’t know what that entails. According to manager Kevin Cash, “Rocco has been promoted to a position that will take full advantage of his personal strengths as well as the strengths of our staff as a whole.”