PORT CHARLOTTE — Hank Blalock hopes signing a minor-league deal with the Rays can be the start of a "new chapter in my career."
Blalock, 29, a two-time All-Star infielder, couldn't be picky after a humbling offseason of uncertainty, with the Rays the only team to take a chance and make him an offer.
"I didn't have any other choice," he said. "That's why I'm here."
That doesn't mean Blalock isn't excited for the opportunity. Though manager Joe Maddon said the chances of Blalock making the 25-man opening day roster were "probably not very good right now," he pointed out how things can change given injuries.
At the very least, Blalock provides depth at first base and DH. And if Blalock, who arrived Tuesday in great shape, can improve at the plate (where the left-handed slugger has hit more than 25 homers four times), he can make the Rays think differently.
They'll have about three weeks to evaluate Blalock, who will start playing in games this weekend. He has an opt-out clause, which, starting April 1, allows him to ask for his release and gives the Rays a set time to either put him on the 25-man roster or let him go.
The Rays say that if it doesn't work out, they won't stand in Blalock's way if he gets another big-league opportunity.
"I don't know how it's going to play out. I'd be lying to you if I told you I did, I don't know,'' Maddon said. "But I do know I like him as a baseball player a lot. And I'm eager to see him on the field and get to know him a little bit better."
Those Rays who have played with Blalock say he's a "grinder" who leaves the field dirty, a joker in the clubhouse and a potential game-changer.
"I'll tell you what, if he's healthy, he's gonna be unbelievable," said right-hander Joaquin Benoit, who played with Blalock in Texas from 2002-08. "He swings hard at everything, and he's not the kind of guy that swings hard and misses. He swings hard and produces."
Said Gabe Kapler: "He's put up some fairly tremendous numbers at different times during his career, and I know those skills don't diminish when you're 29 years old. So the upside is there."
Blalock missed large parts of the 2007-08 seasons with injuries, including a torn hamstring and a condition called thoracic outlet, which affects the nerves running from the arm to the neck. Though he bounced back to hit 25 homers and knock in 66 runs last season, his batting average (.234) and on-base percentage (.277) were career lows.
"I wasn't happy with how I played last year," he said. "I feel like I was capable of doing a lot more offensively. For me, the home run numbers don't really determine what kind of hitter I want to be."
Blalock had 25 homers and 90 RBIs for three straight seasons (2003-05) in Texas before his numbers began to fall off.
If he makes the roster, he'd earn $925,000, with the shot for another $350,000 in incentives based on plate appearances.
"He's got tremendous power," Rays executive VP Andrew Friedman said. "I know Texas is a good hitter's park, but his power will play anywhere. He got away some of the last few years from working the same kind of at-bats that he had, but we feel there's a lot of upside there."
Times staff writer Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]