Much has been made about the enormous amount of money that teams have been throwing at free agents this off-season. The Cubs alone have committed more than $200 million and counting. This frenzied spending may have had a direct impact on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays pursuit of free agents and an indirect impact on the future of fan favorite Rocco Baldelli. The Rays front office have indicated that they are willing to jump into the free agent pool, but only if value presents itself. With the size of the contracts so far this winter, the Rays, along with other small market clubs, may have been priced out of the market. This means that if the Rays want to add any impact players to the roster, it will have to be done through trades. The good news for the Rays is that with every large free agent contract that is signed, the value of Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli increases. In today’s market, Crawford and Baldelli’s value may never be higher than it is right now. Both players are young, talented and most importantly signed to relatively inexpensive long-term deals.

Juan Pierre recently signed a contract worth $44 million over 5 years and Gary Matthews Jr. inked an even bigger deal worth $50 million over 5 years. Pierre, 29, is coming off a season in which he .292 with a .330 OBP. While he did steal 58 bases, he was caught 20 times. Crawford, 25, hit .305-18-77 with a .348 OBP and 58 steals. He was only caught 9 times and played most of the season with a sore wrist. Baldelli hit .302-16-57 with a .339 OBP in little over half a season (92 games). After missing all of 2005 and the first two months of 2006, Rocco appeared to rediscover his swing in the final two months of the season, hitting .342 in August and .309 in September with 10 home runs in his final 24 games. Matthews’ 2006 numbers are more in line with those of C. C. and Rocco, but he is 32 years old and has a career batting average of .263. In addition, While many consider Pierre a below-average outfielder, both Baldelli and and Crawford are solid, if unspectacular, with the glove. Teams that could not afford the services of Pierre or Matthews may be more inclined to give up talent for the services of one of the Rays young outfielders.

Crawford is undoubtedly the more prized player of the two, however, Rocco is the one that is more likely to be moved. The price for Baldelli would be considerably less and easier to stomach for most teams. As a center fielder, Rocco also plays a position that is harder to fill. Few free agent center fielders were available this winter, which is why Pierre and Matthews were able to command such large contracts. The dearth of center fielders is also why some teams are pursuing former Ray Julio Lugo, who may be asked to make the switch to the outfield. If Lugo refuses to make the switch, more teams may turn their attention to the Rays and Baldelli. The Rays also can afford to move Rocco, with other options within the organization to fill a center field vacancy. With the likely addition of Akinori Iwamuri, B. J. Upton could be moved to center field. Another option is Elijah Dukes, who will be given a chance to earn a spot on the roster in spring training at either first base or the outfield. The other option would be to trade either Dukes or Upton. In that scenario, the Rays would be able to keep their known commodities Crawford and Baldelli. However, the talent received for Dukes or Upton would be considerably less.

The most likely destination for Baldelli is the Florida Marlins. The Marlins are in the market for a center fielder and have the young pitching talent the Rays will seek in return. In fact, the Marlins may have already made an offer to the Rays, although it is unclear if they are seeking Baldelli or Dukes. The Colorado Rockies may also be interested in one of the Rays outfielders, and if the Cubs fail to land a free agent center fielder and decide not to move Soriano to center, they could come calling. Exactly what the Rays asking price for Baldelli is unknown, but will most certainly include at least one young major league-ready starting pitcher.

 
 

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