BALTIMORE — Rocco Baldelli took the first step to returning to the Rays this season by signing a minor-league contract Monday and joining the Class A team in Port Charlotte.
And even though his next strides were back to the dugout — he struck out all four times as the Stone Crabs' DH (twice looking, twice swinging) — the Rays will give him plenty of time, likely until late August, before deciding whether to make a no-risk, potentially high-upside stretch-run addition.
"We're excited for Rocco to continue his playing career," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "He still possesses the natural physical ability to help us down the stretch, but it will take some time to get him back into optimal playing shape for us to make the most informed decision possible."
Baldelli, 28, hasn't played in games since finishing 2009 with Boston, spending this season as a special assistant coach in the Rays' minor-league system, though working out often, occasionally with the big-league team. He's expected to need an extended period of time in the minors to get ready, perhaps two to three weeks with Charlotte before moving up to Double A or Triple A.
That's fine with the Rays, who in theory could wait until the Sept. 1 roster expansion anyway (then figure out a way later to make him eligible for postseason play if warranted).
"I think that's reasonable; that would be about a 5½-6 week gig," manager Joe Maddon said. "By that time you should have a pretty good indication of what you think about his abilities."
There used to be no question. Baldelli was a promising future star until his career was derailed by a series of injuries, then a mysterious illness, diagnosed as mitochondrial myopathy, then channelopathy, that sapped his strength and, even now on a stabilizing medication program, limits his availability. Baldelli has been rehabbing a shoulder injury but has showed in recent workouts he can throw well enough to play the field.
"He'd be one of the best players in this league right now with good health," Maddon said.
But the potential of using him as a DH, pinch-hitter and occasional outfielder is enough to keep the Rays intrigued, with Maddon raving that he still has "great bat speed" and "a ton" of power.
"If you watch him work out, it's incredible," Maddon said. "He's still such an interesting athlete. … Don't know where it's going to lead, but I think it's a good idea. … I don't think there's a downside."
After playing at home through Wednesday, the Stone Crabs will be in the Tampa Bay area for a week, playing at Clearwater Thursday-Sunday and at Tampa July 27-30.