The then Tampa Bay Devil Rays were building something special in the outfield.
In consecutive seasons, the Devil Rays had drafted their entire future outfield. Starting in 1999, they selected outfielder Josh Hamilton No. 1 overall. Hamilton was considered a once-in-a-lifetime player, often being mentioned under the same breath as Mickey Mantle. He was a five-tool baseball player and was the first high school player to go No. 1 overall since Alex Rodriguez five years earlier.
Their second-round pick in 1999 was outfielder Carl Crawford. Crawford was going to play left field and lead off in the future for the Devil Rays.
By 2000, the Devil Rays had completed their future stud outfield with the selection of Rocco Baldelli. The sixth overall, first-round pick was to play center field alongside Crawford and Hamilton and help anchor a Tampa Bay team that looked a few years away from contending with the New York Yankees.
They had the farm system, the talent and the time to devolve their young team lead by their outfield.
By 2002, Hamilton had made it as far as Double-A ball before his drug use and injuries derailed his Devil Rays career. By 2006, Hamilton was no longer with the Rays. Picked up by the Cubs in the Rule-5 draft, Hamilton was immediately traded to the Cincinnati Reds. Eight years after being drafted first overall, Hamilton made his pro debut with the Reds.
Crawford spent three seasons in the minor leagues before making his pro debut with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2002 where for the next nine seasons, anchored the Rays as their lead-off hitter. Five times in those eight full seasons, Crawford stole more than 50 bases. This offseason, Crawford left Tampa to sign with another AL East division rival, the Boston Red Sox.
And then there is Rocco Baldelli, the missing piece to the Devil Rays future outfield. He was supposed to anchor center field and be mentioned as one of the greatest to ever play. One scout back in 2003 even went as far as to call Baldelli "Joe's twin," in reference to Joe DiMaggio.
Baldelli made his pro debut in 2003, where he batted .289 with 11 home runs and 78 RBIs in 156 games and finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting. The following season, Baldelli again put up similar numbers, despite playing in 20 less games.
Baldelli missed the entire 2005 season after tearing his ACL in a pickup basketball game. The injury was followed by a second injury, this time to his elbow, which required Tommy John surgery. Baldelli returned to play during the 2006 season, but couldn't escape the injury bug.
Hamstring issues forced Baldelli in and out of the lineup in 2007 and over the next two seasons, Baldelli managed to play in just 63 total games. Badelli was, however, left on the Rays playoff roster where he homered and drove in four runs in the ALCS playoffs against the Boston Red Sox. In the World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies, Badelli homered in Game 5, his only hit of the series.
During the offseason, Baldelli was found to have been suffering from a mitochondrial disorder, which may have resulted in muscle fatigue.
By 2009, Baldelli's career with Tampa was over after signing a one-year deal with the Boston Red Sox. Injuries once again forced Baldelli in and out of the lineup, and after the season, Baldelli was let go.
Baldelli re-signed with the Rays in 2010, appearing in 10 total games before being sidelined with injuries. In his first at bat with the Rays since he left, Badelli blasted a two-run home run against the Baltimore Orioles. It was his last home run in the major leagues.
On Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011, Rocco Baldelli called it a career, retiring at the ripe old age of 29 years old, his career cut short by injuries. Baldelli won't play another game, but he isn't leaving baseball for good either, accepting a job with the Rays as a special assistant to baseball operations.
Rocco Baldelli had a promising career and so did the Tampa Bay Rays outfield, which earlier this week signed aging stars Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. The thought of signing a 37- and 38-year-old to compete in the Rays outfield was never considered back in 2000.
The trio of Baldelli, Crawford and Hamilton never played a single major league game together and sadly, never will. The sixth overall pick in the 2000 draft was set to anchor center field for Tampa for many years, but instead, had his career cut short due to injuries.
Here's to you, Rocco. So long, we hardly knew ya.