Lofton not Rays' best option 

March, 10, 2008
From yesterday's St. Petersburg Times:

TAMPA -- Manager Joe Maddon said Saturday that the Rays need to know something definitive in the next week about the availability of OF Rocco Baldelli.

That's important for this season, as the Rays have to have an idea of when, how often and in what role he can contribute, and whether they may need to seek another frontline outfielder from outside the organization (Kenny Lofton?).

"Over the course of the next week, something's probably got to give in a positive direction to know that he's going to be able to get out there with any kind of regularity," Maddon said. "You're looking to get nine innings, whether it's as a DH or an outfielder. So I'd say the next week is going to be very vital, or important, to determine that."

But with what seems to be a growing question -- if Baldelli, 26, can come back to play at all -- comes an expensive decision facing the Rays in the next three weeks.

Under terms of the long-term deal signed in December 2005, the Rays have to decide by April 1 on Baldelli's 2009 option. And given his uncertain future, neither choice may be appealing -- giving him $4-million and free agency after this season, or committing $8-million to keep him for at least two more years.

If they decline -- which seems most likely -- they pay a $4-million buyout and allow him to be a free agent after the season, though they could re-sign him then. If they pick up the option, they have him for $6-million in 2009, and are on the hook for at least a $2-million buyout on a combined 2010-11 option for $17-million total.

At the least, Baldelli -- sidelined with undefined leg muscle problems -- will end up with $9-million for the first years of the deal. But if he doesn't play again, it probably doesn't mean much.

First, can I just say this: Kenny Lofton? Really?

Granted, he's sort of an amazing player. Since he turned 35 in 2002, Lofton hasn't finished a season with an OPS+ higher than 109 or lower than 95, which means he's essentially maintained his league-averageness without missing a single beat. But is he really right for the Rays? This is a team that recently traded Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes because they had too many outfielders. Yes, at the moment they're looking a bit thin, but that's mostly because nobody talks about Justin Ruggiano as a viable option in right field. Ruggiano turns 26 next month and has only 14 at-bats in the majors. He strikes out a ton. But he's younger than Lofton, cheaper than Lofton, faster than Lofton, and has more power than Lofton.

Maybe there's another "frontline outfielder" available? Sure. Here are the best outfielders still looking for jobs: Reggie Sanders, Preston Wilson, Sammy Sosa, Orlando Palmeiro. Really. Well, and Bonds. Barry Bonds. But that notion's already been considered and, it seems, discarded. Those other guys were all fine players in their time, but in each case that time has now been over for a few years.

If Baldelli can't play, the Rays still have Jonny Gomes, Cliff Floyd, and Ruggiano to fill two slots: right field and DH. Floyd bats lefty; the other two are righties. None of the three has much chance of being great -- Gomes' outstanding 2005 now seems like a long time ago -- but all three could be good. It really shouldn't be so hard to cobble together a reasonably productive twosome from that group. At least until Floyd pulls or strains or ruptures something.

Finally, for you younger readers, it's worth remembering that five years ago it was fashionable to compare Baldelli to Joe DiMaggio. With a straight face.



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