Kids, check the back of your baseball card. Where does it say your favorite center fielder resides? Does it say the disabled list? It's becoming a second home for him. Unlike the real estate market in St. Petersburg, the demand is hot right now in DL land -- where teammate Akinori Iwamura also currently resides -- for members of the Devil Rays. But we hear that Iwamura, the sensational defensive third baseman who gives Tampa Bay fans something to cheer about, is selling his abode in Injuredville shortly; great news for Tampa Bay fans.
Just like the dreaded hurricane season, a Baldelli injury is destined to happen in Florida every year. The odds makers know this and are already taking bets in Las Vegas. No, they aren't making bets about whether or not Baldelli will get hurt again after he returns in June; those odds would be lower than the odds on Street Sense in the upcoming Preakness after the horse's dominating performance at the Kentucky Derby. Rather, the odds makers are taking bets on what part of his body will get injured next. This time it's a left hamstring strain. He already had Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow. Honestly, what body part will cause him to miss an extended period of time the next go around? Baldelli is becoming more injury prone than Ken Griffey Jr. without all of the career home runs. He is the position player's version of Mark Prior, a talented young baseball prospect who spends more time on the DL than on the field.
I like the way that Baldelli plays. I truly do. Not only is he a consistent hitter who gets on base with occasional power, he is a more than capable defender in center field when healthy. A few years ago, the Rhode Island high school sports legend was well on his way to establishing himself as one of the top young players in the game. He even drew comparisons to Joe DiMaggio. Unfortunately, time, like surgeries, can change everything in a baseball career. As much as I thought that Baldelli was going to end up being a franchise player for the Devil Rays, I don't see that happening anymore. I know this particular injury isn't that serious at the moment, but Tampa Bay fans can speak to history when discussing Baldelli's health status.
If Elijah Dukes can keep maturing as a person and a baseball player, he may be the better option in center field shortly anyways. Dukes started tonight in Baldelli's absence and is officially the subject of Joe Maddon's new leadoff experiment. Although this article may not have the best timing (Dukes is 0-for-4 with three strikeouts through the first seven innings of the Disney finale) the Hillsborough High product, arguably, has the most power potential of any of the plethora of skilled, young outfielders in the organization. He certainly showed why in Wednesday night's win when he blasted a long home run, his American League rookie-leading seventh, to lead off the game. Similar to Baldelli, he is also more than capable roaming the turf in center at Tropicana Field. He will fill in as the leadoff hitter for the time being, but only time will tell if that's the spot for him. With his power, Dukes could find himself in the middle of the lineup for a big-league team for years to come. However, his advanced plate discipline, well beyond a player of his years, could also strike a perfect match at the top of the order.
With so many talented outfielders, a trade could potentially happen by the trade deadline. Carl Crawford and Delmon Young simply aren't expendable. In my opinion, Baldelli and Dukes are. But who is the more expendable player of the pair at this point? Also, who would bring more in return? Obviously, management is going to look at every possible solution if they do decide to trade an outfielder away for pitching. The tricky part is that there may not even be a demand for Baldelli by the end of July. The Devil Rays wouldn't trade him in the off season when the offers were considerably higher than they would be now with Baldelli injured again. It would be hard to imagine that there are that many teams out there who would be willing to give up any top, or even B-level, pitching prospects -- that the Devil Rays would demand in a deal -- by taking a risk on Baldelli or even Dukes. Baldelli's health and Dukes' troubles off the field could prevent a major trade from ever happening. Personally, I feel that Baldelli is the outfielder who I would offer up as trade bait. Dukes might be the Pacman Jones of the Devil Rays, but he has more of an upside, baseball-wise, than Baldelli. If he can straighten up the issues in his personal life, he could be representing the Devil Rays at an All-Star Game in the very near future. Plus, the Devil Rays learned the hard way when they let another troubled, but talented outfielder enter the Rule 5 draft when they didn't secure his place on the 40- man roster this past winter. I won't mention any names because that deal is already painful enough for baseball fans in the St. Petersburg area. It could become even more of a stake through the hearts of Devil Rays' fans if the infamous former first-round pick wins the National League Rookie of the Year Award. I am giving Dukes the benefit of the doubt, but Rocco is another story.
I hope that Baldelli can find a way to stay healthy and resurrect his baseball career. It just might not happen in a Devil Rays uniform. As former Devil Rays tend to do, he could become a star after he leaves Tampa Bay. Nonetheless, a change might be beneficial for both parties.
Oh, and who could leave out B.J. Upton? Upton, currently the Devil Rays' starting second baseman, profiles as a center fielder. And if the injury bug continues to plague Baldelli and Dukes' personal issues -- such another run-in with the law -- ever prevent him from playing, don't be surprised if Upton, the number two pick in the 2002 draft, as a shortstop, ends up as Tampa Bay's permanent answer in center.
Note- Several of the comments in this article aren't meant to be serious. Hopefully, this article will take the reverse effect of the Madden Football jinx and in the aftermath of its release, Baldelli won't go on the DL again for the rest of his once-promising career.