Marlins interested in Rays' Baldelli

Marlins target Rays' Baldelli to play center

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Upgrading center field is a main objective for the Marlins, and Tampa Bay's Rocco Baldelli has definitely piqued the team's interest.

Whether the Marlins will be willing to part with a front-line starting pitcher to secure the services of Baldelli remains a hurdle and point of discussion within the organization at the annual Winter Meetings.

Strong starting pitching is the foundation of the franchise, and general manager Larry Beinfest is reluctant to part with any of the parts in place. Still, the team is open to exploring all available options, and a talent like Baldelli has the team weighing whether to part with one of the four rookie starters from this past season.

Word of the Marlins' interest in Baldelli spread quickly, and was confirmed by sources on Monday afternoon.

But prying Baldelli away from the Rays may be difficult, because the 25-year-old is signed to a team-friendly contract that will net him $750,000 in 2007 and $2.5 million in 2008.

The deal has a $6 million option for 2009 and a $4 million buyout. By today's skyrocketing salary standards -- former Marlin Juan Pierre recently signed a five-year, $44 million contract with the Dodgers -- Baldelli is a comparably inexpensive alternative.

As attractive a talent as Baldelli is, he has been plagued by injuries, and this past season, he played in just 92 games, batting .302 with 16 home runs and 57 RBIs.

The fact Baldelli has health concerns, however, may work to Florida's advantage making a trade for the center fielder.

Two starters the Marlins are adamant about not trading this offseason are Dontrelle Willis and Josh Johnson. Again on Monday, sources noted that Willis is not available.

The club also is not eager about parting with Scott Olsen and Anibal Sanchez. Ricky Nolasco becomes the most probable trade choice, but the team also is in no rush to deal the 23-year-old right-hander.

A source on Monday said if the Marlins offered Olsen, they probably would be able to seal a deal for Baldelli.

In 2006, Johnson, Olsen, Sanchez and Nolasco became the first foursome of rookies in Major League history to reach double-digits in victories. Nolasco offers flexibility to the Marlins because he is versatile enough to relieve, and could factor into the closer mix if he should fall out of the rotation.

In Beinfest's opinion, the Marlins' young rotation is pretty special.

"Everybody has their own cup of tea, and is entitled to their opinion," Beinfest said. "But when we evaluate our pitching staff, our five incumbent starters from the way we ended last year, we think it's very strong.

"When that pitching was performing, I don't think there was any smoke there. These were legitimately good, young pitchers that were throwing great. They gave us a chance to win every night, and we were winning our share of games."

Houston's Willie Taveras once intrigued the Marlins as a trade option. But the club has cooled its interest in the Astros speedster.

In the event the Marlins don't pull the trigger on a trade for a center fielder, they may continue to go with lower-profile choices. Internally, Reggie Abercrombie, who is playing Winter Ball in Puerto Rico, will again get a look, as will Alfredo Amezaga, Cody Ross and Eric Reed.

Abercrombie has become somewhat of a fan favorite in Puerto Rico, because he hit a monstrous home run and is impressing fans by playing hard.

If the Marlins go the entire season without making a major deal for a center fielder, the club may actually be better situated to fill that need in 2008. That's because a year from now, a number of promising prospects -- like Chris Volstad and Gaby Hernandez -- are progressing through the Minor League system.

Once those young arms show they are big-league ready, the Marlins will be in better position to deal for a center fielder.

The organization has even tossed around the idea of testing Jeremy Hermida in center, although he remains the front-runner to stay in right field.

Center field, bullpen and a utility infielder top the Marlins' shopping list at the meetings.

Ideally, Beinfest is after a closer with some experience. Among the possibilities are free agent Dan Kolb, who had his struggles the past few seasons. With the Brewers in 2006, the right-hander was 2-2 with a 4.84 ERA, striking out 26 while walking 20 in 48 1/3 innings.

Another candidate who has closed is Milwaukee's Derrick Turnbow, who will earn $2.3 million in 2007 and $3.2 million in 2008.

Other avenues to find a possible closer with experience are the Thursday Rule 5 Draft, as well as players who aren't tendered contracts in the upcoming weeks.

The Marlins also are searching for a veteran right-handed hitter to take the place of Wes Helms, who signed as a free agent with the Phillies.

One candidate is free agent Jose Hernandez, a 15-year veteran who made $850,000 for the Phillies in 2006. Hernandez would likely be signed for less than what he earned a year ago, where he appeared in 67 games, batting .267 with two home runs and 12 RBIs.

Helms was an asset for the Marlins backing up Mike Jacobs at first base. Helms provided a platoon option against left-handed pitching and also became a defensive replacement in the late innings once Jacobs was hobbled by a right ankle injury.

Now healthy, Jacobs is being slotted as the everyday first baseman, and he's expected to get a shot to face right-handed and left-handed pitchers.

When the Marlins signed Helms for $800,000, he was brought in as a situational player to spot play at first and third base, along with being a right-handed bat off the bench.

The Phillies envision Helms challenging for a starting role at third base, which is a main reason the veteran signed a two-year deal worth $5.5 million, plus an option for a third season.

"When we signed Wes Helms, we used him the way we thought we were going to use him, and he was at a good price for us," Beinfest said. "That's for us. But that doesn't mean it doesn't mean it makes sense for someone else. They may use him differently and evaluate him differently. When we signed Wes, we thought of him as being used at third, first and being a primary right-handed bat off the bench. Then when Jake had the ankle problem, he became a defensive replacement. Had he come back, he would have had the same role."

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.