The 2019 season marks Rocco Baldelli’s 20th in professional baseball, and he has pretty much seen it all in his two decades of work.
Drafted by the Rays as the sixth overall selection of the 2000 draft, Baldelli was an incredible pure athlete who could do everything exceedingly well on a baseball field. He quickly became one of the Rays top prospects.
Following the 2002 season, he was named the second-best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America, and was also named their Minor League Player of the Year.
With the start of the 2003 season, at just 21 years of age, Baldelli had made it onto the Opening Day roster and made his Major League debut during an eventual Rays walk-off victory against the Boston Red Sox. Baldelli surged out of the gate, setting a new rookie record for hits in the month of April (40), and played well for the duration of the season. When it came time for the yearly awards to be handed out, Baldelli finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year vote.
Unfortunately, that would be among the high points of his playing career. Over the next several years, Badelli endured a myriad bizarre and nagging injuries that would sideline him for extended periods of time.
He played 136 games in 2004, hampered by a hamstring injury halfway through the season.
During the offseason, Baldelli tore his ACL while playing basketball with his brother. He began a rehab assignment the following summer but dealt with discomfort in his elbow that he tried to play through. He was eventually diagnosed with a torn UCL and had to undergo Tommy John surgery, ending his season.
Despite missing all of 2005, the Rays signed Baldelli to a potential six-year contract extension in November.
The injury woes continued for Baldelli in 2006, as he suffered a strained hamstring in spring training that kept him out until early June. Once he returned, Baldelli managed to avoid the injury bug and put up a great season for the Rays, slashing .302/.339/.533 with 16 home runs over 387 plate appearances, accruing 3.4 fWAR.
The future looked bright for Baldelli and the Rays, as the outfielder had just put up a solid year, was under contract for several more seasons, and had just turned 25 years old upon the season’s conclusion.
Then he hit a wall, literally.
In spring training 2007, Baldelli dealt with more hamstring issues but was able to make the Opening Day roster. In April, Baldelli ran into a wall attempting to make a catch, causing him to miss a few games. Then, in May, his hamstring flared up again and would eventually cause him to miss the rest of the season. He played in only 35 games that season.
With the arrival of the 2008 season, Baldelli announced he was putting his playing career on hold as he was dealing a new issue. He was struggling to stay energized even after the most mundane of activities. Baldelli spent the first half of the season journeying from specialist to specialist trying to properly diagnose and resolve his ailments.
He managed to return to the Rays in August as the team played the first meaningful games in franchise history. The Rays made it into the postseason and Baldelli was placed on their playoff roster. During the American League Championship Series, Baldelli laced a base hit that scored the eventual go-ahead run in the series-deciding Game Seven.
After the World Series, the Rays declined their option on Baldelli, making him a free agent for the first time in his career. During the offseason, he was finally properly diagnosed with Channelopathy, and he was able to get more effective treatment.
He signed a one-year deal with his hometown team, the Boston Red Sox. Over the course of the season, Baldelli endured a couple of short stints on the Injured List, but never for an extended period of time. He would eventually play in 62 games for the Red Sox, his most since the 2006 season.
That offseason, Baldelli was once again a free agent and once again suffered another ailment. He was dealing with a sore shoulder that affected his ability to play. The Tampa Bay Rays gave Baldelli a special opportunity to serve the club as a ‘special assistant’ basically helping to coach the team’s minor leaguers with baserunning and outfield abilities. All the while he would be rehabilitating his sore shoulder.
That summer, the Rays signed Baldelli to a minor league deal, and he made his return to the big league squad when rosters expanded in September. During his first plate appearance back, Baldelli launched a pinch-hit two run home run.
That would turn out to be Baldelli’s last home run as a professional baseball player as he finished out the season with the Rays.
The following January, at just 29 years old, Rocco Baldelli announced his retirement.
Following his retirement, Baldelli returned to the Rays to serve in the same capacity that he had been in before signing the minor league deal in the summer of 2010.
He rose through the ranks, and when spots opened up on the Rays Major League staff following the 2014 season, Baldelli was named the team’s new first base coach. Baldelli served in that role through the 2016 season.
In 2017, the Rays created a new role for Baldelli to keep him on the major league staff but also to allow him to focus on game strategy. He became the team’s Major League Field Coordinator.
Known around the league as a good baseball analyst who worked well with players and staff, Baldelli’s was a popular name in managerial searches across the league. In late October, Rocco Baldelli was named the Manager of the Minnesota Twins.
Two months into his first season as a manager, the Minnesota Twins hold a 9.5 game lead in the American League Central and heading into play tonight, have a record of 37-17, the best mark in the majors.
Welcome home, Rocco.