Rocco Baldelli Offers Unique Perspective As A Coach
Following his junior year at Bishop Hendricken High in Warwick, R.I., Rocco Baldelli was a lanky, academically inclined athlete, looking for a rigorous college in New England that would allow him to play both basketball and baseball. He wasn't expecting to be drafted.
Three and a half years later, Baldelli was the Minor League Player of the Year, and the No. 2 prospect in baseball behind Mark Teixeira, beginning his climb to the majors for the then-Devil Rays, before his career was ultimately cut short by injury. Now, Baldelli is back in a major league uniform for the Rays as the franchise begins another period of transition. This time, Baldelli is beginning a second career as a coach, serving as a living example of what it takes to succeed (and what can go wrong) at the big league level.
In 2014, Tampa Bay lost general manager Andrew Friedman (to the Dodgers) and manager Joe Maddon (to the Cubs). Matt Silverman, who previously served as the team's president, now heads the baseball front office. A few weeks into his tenure, Silverman hired Kevin Cash as manager, and the field staff crystallized in December.
As the first-base coach, Baldelli will assist Cash in managing the various personalities on the Rays roster. As a player, Baldelli experienced extreme lows and extreme highs as the Rays went from perennial cellar dwellers to one of the most respected organizations in baseball, and Baldelli's understanding of the mental side of the game will allow him to relate to players.
In some ways, Baldelli's baseball career began with him reading the classified advertisements, where he found out about a Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau tryout one summer morning. Baldelli and a friend decided to attend the tryout at Holy Cross, and he showed explosive tools.
With a lean and wiry frame, the Rhode Islander showed feel for the bat, a plus arm, and easy plus speed--running the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds. At least one scout came away very impressed, and invited him to the 1999 East Coast Professional Showcase, where Baldelli solidified himself as a first-round pick.
Baldelli's tools were undeniable, and after his showing at East Coast Pro, he was among 10 or so players the Rays were considering with the sixth overall pick in 2000. For area scout Matt Dodd, Baldelli checked off just about every box. After exploding that summer, Rocco continued to show tools during his senior year. A late-season injury deterred some teams, but the Rays loved what they had seen from him and loved his makeup, and made Baldelli their top pick.
Even after being drafted, Baldelli's rise to the top of the prospect scene was slow. He was overmatched in his first taste of professional baseball, and struggled to a .579 OPS in the Rookie-level Appalachian League.
“If it were a first-pitch breaking ball for a strike, I might as well have folded up and gone away," Baldelli said of his pro debut.
As Baldelli began to gain experience, he also started to add weight to the 6-foot-4, 178-pound frame that he brought to the Appalachian League.
“Understanding what I was trying to do when I stepped up to the plate was important, because in high school I pulled everything," he said. “Literally every at-bat that I had in high school, my goal was to hit a home run, and generally that meant to left field. I couldn't drive the ball to right field. I didn't know how, I couldn't do it."
By his second full season in the minor leagues, Baldelli was able to barrel fastballs up the middle and to the opposite field, and really became proficient at hitting the ball to all fields. In chasing this goal, Baldelli became better at allowing balls to travel deep into the hitting zone, and as a result, helping him against offspeed pitches.
This was 2002, and Baldelli mashed at high Class A Bakersfield to start the season. After 77 games in the Cal League, the Rays promoted him to Double-A Orlando, where he hit .371 in 17 games before a second promotion, this time to Triple-A Durham. He started noticing the buzz building around him, especially when he was named BA's Minor League Player of The Year.
“It's a really nice honor, and you start looking at the other names that have kind of been acknowledged and given this award and you start thinking this is a pretty special thing," he said.
In 2003, Baldelli became the Rays' center fielder and played in 156 games--a figure he never topped. He hit .289/.326/.416 en route to a third-place finish in the American League rookie of the year vote. After another successful campaign in 2004, Baldelli began battling injuries. He tore his ACL in the offseason, then tore his UCL while rehabbing, and missed all of the 2005 season. After a bounce-back 2006, when he hit .302, he appeared to again be on track for stardom.
Unfortunately, Baldelli began dealing with extreme fatigue, and never got his career back on track. He contributed to the 2008 AL pennant winners, hitting two postseason home runs, and called the 2008 run the highlight of his baseball career.
But his days as a regular were over. He played 2009 with Boston. In 2010, as he continued to battle his body, he began working in a player development and amateur scouting capacity for the Rays as he rehabbed his way back onto the field for 10 final games.
Friedman had always told Baldelli that he would be welcomed with open arms if he wanted to work in baseball operations for the Rays. Baldelli quickly became a big part of the team's scouting efforts, evaluating amateur and professional players.
In 2011, Baldelli decided he wanted to go all in on the scouting front. He began attending amateur games on a daily basis. Following the draft, he helped the front office in preparation for the trade deadline. After the deadline, he was back on the amateur scouting trail, evaluating players on the high school showcase circuit. Baldelli grew into one of the Rays' trusted evaluators.
Now, in a time of significant turnover for the Rays, Baldelli will be back in a uniform for the first time since hanging up his spikes in 2010 as Cash's first-base coach.
Baldelli is the youngest coach or manager in the majors by four years, and is among the game's top managerial or GM candidates. Fifteen years into his baseball career, Baldelli's approach to the game hasn't changed much.
“I've always thought that if I work hard--whether it's school work or playing baseball or scouting or anything, really," he said, “if I give it an honest effort, and give it everything that I have, then things are eventually going to work out."
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