We take a look back at the Tampa Bay Rays outfield of the future in the early 2000s. The rise of Rocco Baldelli
In 2000, the Tampa Bay Rays selected what they believed to be the final piece of their future outfield full of stars. Rocco Baldelli was taken sixth overall in the 2000 draft. The Rays envisioned him slotting in with the previous season’s top two draft picks, Josh Hamilton and Carl Crawford.
Many believed the Rays were on their way to building a legitimate contender to spar with the Yankees in the AL East.
All three were incredible prospects. Of the three, Baldelli was the player pegged as the future centerfielder. Crawford would make his major league debut after three seasons of working his way through the minor league system. Hamilton’s career was derailed by unfortunate off-field issues.
Baldelli was another story.
In 2002, Baldelli rocketed through the minors. He went from Single-A all the way to Triple-A, playing in three different levels in one year. He was a natural. He put up a combined slash line of .331/.370/.571 with 19 homers and 26 steals in 117 games.
In 2003, at the ripe old age of 21, Baldelli blasted off with the Devil Rays. He quickly became a fan favorite. Rocco finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. He slashed .289/.326/.416 while playing in 156 games. Baldelli blasted 11 homers, 32 doubles, eight triples, and scored 89 runs, drove in 78, and swiped 27 bags. He was off to an auspicious start.
The next season he took another step forward while posting positive defensive metrics in centerfield.
Baldelli suffered a torn ACL during a pickup game of basketball. While recovering he injured his elbow and required Tommy John surgery. 2005 would be a lost season. He did make a return in 2006 and put up an OPS of .871 while hitting .309 with 16 homers in just 92 games.
Injuries began to pile up for the beloved outfielder. between 2007 and 2008 he missed a combined 261 games. Yet, when the Rays made their magical run in 2008, they included Rocco on the postseason roster. He rewarded their faith in his talent by hitting .333 in the ALCS with four RBI. He also hit a couple of home runs, including one in Game 5 of the World Series.
That offseason, Baldelli would be diagnosed with mitochondrial channelopathy which causes severe muscle fatigue. Baldelli would continue to struggle with injuries. After bouncing between a few teams and never being able to stay on the field, he found himself back in Tampa as a special assistant. Both sides were in agreement that if his health permitted then he would get a shot at playing.
Baldelli gave it one more shot. He played ten major-league games with the Rays. In the first at-bat of his return, he hit his final major-league homer.
At the age of 29, Baldelli announced his retirement from the game. He remained with the Rays and began his coaching career. Last season, Baldelli managed the Twins back to the postseason and became the youngest (38) recipient of the Manager of the Year Award.
To think about the potential of that Crawford, Baldelli, Hamilton outfield… What might have been? Despite his health issues, Baldelli never quit. That same mentality as a tenacious player has carried over to his success at the helm of the Minnesota Twins. We look forward to following years of success for the young manager and Tampa Bay Rays’ favorite.