Saturday, December 27, 2008

Rocco Baldelli - A Pittsburgh Paisano?

It's time for GW to break out his Calabrese colors and post a piece about the Pirates' rumor de jour, Rocco Baldelli.

Ever since Tuesday, when Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette wrote that the free agent outfielder was on the Pirate radar, Baldelli has dominated the local talk boards.

Scouts have compared Baldelli to Joe DiMaggio ever since his days as a prep star. He even wore the same #5 as the Yankee Clipper in high school. Long time Dodger scout Al LaMacchia went so far as to call him "Joe's twin."

Baldelli was a baseball legend in his native New England - he was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island - and was first round pick of Tampa Bay in the 2000 amateur draft (sixth overall) fresh out of high school.

He got off to a slow start in the minors, playing more like Vince DiMaggio than Joltin' Joe, but in 2002, he marched from High A all the way to AAA. In 2003, he won a starting job with the Rays.

Baldelli finished the 2003 season hitting .289 with 11 home runs, 78 RBI, 89 runs scored and 27 stolen bases. Nice rookie year, hey?

In 2004, it was the same old thing, as he batted .280 with 16 home runs, 74 RBI, 79 runs scored and 17 stolen bases. Baldelli led all MLB center fielders in range factor. He had all five tools to some degree, and was showing off every one of them.

But 2005 was his year from hell. Baldelli started on the DL with a torn ACL in his knee, suffered while playing baseball with his brother. The team hoped he would be back by the All-Star break, but while rehabbing, he injured his elbow and needed TJ surgery. He missed the whole season, and more.

Baldelli returned to the Rays lineup against the Los Angeles Angels on June 7, 2006. He was looking good, too, as he hit .302 with 16 home runs, 57 runs batted in, 57 runs scored and 10 stolen bases in only 364 at bats. The kid was back, or so it seemed.

You can't blame Baldelli for thinking the baseball gods must be crazy, and 2007 was his proof. In spring training, he pulled his hamstring. The injury nagged him, and after appearing in 35 games, he was placed on the DL again. He aggravated the injury during minor league rehab and was lost for the rest of the season.

Baldini couldn't figure out why his body was giving out on him and why his usual regimen was wearing him down. So in the offseason, he was tested to get to the root of his problems. Doctors diagnosed him with mitochondrial myopathy, a genetic disease that would be with him for the rest of his life. There is no cure.

He tried to be a trouper, but in a teary press conference in March of 2008, he announced he was going back on the DL. No quitter, Baldelli was gulping supplements and vitamins by the bottleload in an effort to keep up his strength while battling back in the bushes, and was rewarded with a late season call up.

On August 10th, 2008, he was activated and started in right field for the Rays in a game against the Mariners. Baldelli had an RBI single as well as a highlight reel diving catch before coming out of the game after the 5th inning.

Baldelli ended up playing 28 games for the Rays in 2008, mostly as a DH and pinch hitter, starting just seven games in the field. He hit .263 with 4 home runs and 13 RBI, good enough to earn a spot on the Rays' postseason roster.

In Game 3 of the 2008 ALCS, Baldelli hit a clutch three-run homer off Boston's Paul Byrd in the eighth inning to notch a key victory. He ended up hitting .200 in the post season with 2 homers and 6 RBI. But he still couldn't play back-to-back games, and the Rays let his option expire, making him a free agent.

But hey, the gods may be crazy sometimes, but they're not always vindictive. After the season ended, Baldelli went to the Cleveland Clinic for a second opinion and got some good news for a change. He doesn't have mitochondrial myopathy, but instead the docs said he had channelopathy. That's a cellular disorder, and it's treatable.

So we have a 27-year old RH hitter with some pop in his bat on the market who's looking at 2009 as a year to reestablish himself as a player, even if not on an everyday basis - yet. Baldelli's got 447 MLB games under his belt, with a .286 lifetime average along with 52 home runs and 234 RBI.

The Bucs are supposedly showing serious interest in Baldelli, with the Reds, Phillies, and Rays in the chase, and Boston and the Yankees lurking. He'd be a good fit for the team, which can use a RH bat in the OF to at least platoon with Brandon Moss if not outright challenge him for the position.

And if his condition improves enough for him to return to his glory days...well, he'll be a heck of catch for some team. If not, he's still a worthwhile risk. After all, his agent is Casey Close, not you-know-who, so much of the drama should be missing from his mating dance.

As we say in the old country, "A caval donato non si guarda in bocca." Besides, the team needs someone to carry on the tradition of Bobby Del Greco, Gino Cimoli, Lee Mazzilli, and John Cangelosi, si?

(GW has gotten a couple of e-mails asking about channelopathy. We aren't docs, but we're pretty good at googling, and here's what we came up with: It's a disorder that can be inherited or caused by autoimmune problems, and basically screws up the exchange of potassium, sodium, chloride and calcium in the nervous system.

It's not one disease, either, but sort of a catch-all diagnosis - channelopathy can involve up to 42 specific illnesses ranging from Cystic Fibrosis to a whole lot of syndromes, according to Wikipedia. The treatments range from diet to some scary sounding drugs. So Rocco has an ailment that's thankfully treatable, but there's no guarantee that he won't have medical issues throughout his career.)


WilliamJPellas said...

Rocco Baldelli, Si!

Ron Ieraci said...

We'll see, Will. As I'm sure you noticed, the two guys I liked were Juan Rivera, who reupped with the Angels for a higher deal than I expected, and Baldelli because they were the right age, ability and price. The rest of the pickings are pretty slim.

WilliamJPellas said...

I would gladly overpay Baldelli even on a one year deal. There is good risk, and bad risk. Baldelli is most definitely in the "good risk" category, 100% the kind of player the Pirates need to be creatively signing on a year in, year out basis. Look at how much mileage the Raiders got for decades by being the one place a guy could go to rehabilitate his career. No, I don't want to become the Raiders in the sense of being a place where the inmates run the asylum, but rather a place that is known for being a haven where guys can come to reinvent themselves and revitalize their careers.

Ron Ieraci said...

I agree he has the upside a team should be looking for, Will. Now Rivera signed for 3 years and almost $13M. I don't know what Rocco's looking for.

He may want a year to prove himself, or he may want something longer to fall back on if his recovery isn't as quick as he hoped. I haven't heard any figures being bandied about, but he made $2.25M last year and his option was for $6M.

I'd expect he's getting a lot of incentive-based offers. So we'll see how it plays out. There's a whole range of creative contract opportunities available for him to choose from.

Anonymous said...

Hey, you missed Dino Restelli

Ron Ieraci said...

Yah, I guess I did. Dino was a rookie before I was born, and was out of baseball before I was outta the crib. Thanks for the name, though - you just gave me an idea for tomorrow's post.