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Baldelli leaves Tampa Bay Rays for hometown Red Sox

Rocco Baldelli, at a news conference with Boston manager Terry Francona, will be an outfield backup and occasional DH.

Associated Press

Rocco Baldelli, at a news conference with Boston manager Terry Francona, will be an outfield backup and occasional DH.

Signing Rocco Baldelli was a gamble for any team, given lingering uncertainties about his availability due to his fatigue disorder issues.

For the Rays, their resources extremely limited after the addition of DH Pat Burrell, it seemed like one they couldn't afford to take.

"It's a tough moment," manager Joe Maddon said. "We had to do what we think is right right now, and hopefully it will work out for both (sides)."

For the Red Sox, it sounded like one they couldn't afford not to, convinced Baldelli, with a recent more encouraging diagnosis, can be a "pretty dynamic" addition.

"This has a really high upside and high return," Red Sox GM Theo Epstein said in Boston. "We wouldn't have made this signing if we weren't really optimistic that he could make a significant contribution."

If he does, the Red Sox — who plan to use him as a reserve at all three outfield spots and at DH — might have quite a deal. And the Rays — their rightfield position likely to be split among several players — could have regrets.

Baldelli's guaranteed salary is only $500,000 (just above the minimum), but he can make another $1.75-million by staying on the active roster all season (matching his $2.25-million 2008 salary), plus the chance, based on plate appearance incentives (from 325 to 600), for up to $5.25-million more.

The Rays were in a tough spot. He became a free agent because in April, before knowing if he would return, they declined his 2009 option, paying a $4-million buyout rather than a $6-million 2009 salary (plus a $2-million buyout or a $17-million combined 2010-11 option).

And though Baldelli returned in August to play in 28 games and contributed key hits in the postseason, including knocking in the decisive run in the Game 7 pennant-clincher, their top priority was adding a big bat. Signing Burrell, who will make $7-million, pushed their payroll close to $60-million.

Baldelli, a Rhode Island native whose signing caused a daylong stir in New England leading up to his introductory news conference, said it was emotional to leave the Rays and the Tampa Bay area but exciting to be going home to play.

"It was the right decision at this time," he told the Times.

With the Rays not an option and others, such as the Pirates and Reds, less appealing for several reasons, he focused primarily on the Sox, who offered a bit of everything: love, money and the comforts of home.

"I'm definitely excited. I think this is a great move for my baseball career," he said. "Boston pursued me pretty aggressively, and I appreciated that. In addition to the baseball side of it, they were equally interested in helping me out any way they could medically."

Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said he had "respect and admiration" for Baldelli and considered him "a very important part" of the organization. "It is going to be strange to see him in a different uniform, but that is part of the game," Friedman said. "At the end of the day, Rocco did what he felt like was in his best interests, and we did the same. It doesn't change the affection we have for him as a person."

Baldelli, 27, has been a Ray his entire career, a 2000 first-round pick and 2003 rookie sensation. But a series of injuries sidelined him for much of 2005-07, and last spring he disclosed the fatigue disorder, which was considered to be mitochondrial.

Baldelli said Thursday that he "couldn't be happier" about how he felt. But he and Epstein acknowledged that even with revised diagnosis of a channelopathy, refined treatments and the Red Sox's "other resources" such as Massachusetts General Hospital, there remained some uncertainties, and it would be until at least spring training before they knew often he could play.

"I anticipate being able to do more than I was doing last year," Baldelli said.

That, as the Rays know, could be a lot.

"When he's truly healthy and well, he's one of the top players in the American League, no doubt. He's one of the most talented players I've ever been on the field with, on top of being a great guy," Maddon said. "I would love to have had it work out with us. I think a lot of him as a player and as a person, but it's not to be right now."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Baldelli leaves Tampa Bay Rays for hometown Red Sox 01/08/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 11, 2009 6:47pm]

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