Braves interested in Baldelli

Braves interested in Rays' Baldelli

ATLANTA -- While confirming the club's interest in obtaining Rocco Baldelli from the Devil Rays, a Braves source has provided indication that they are willing to provide some top prospects to complete this transaction.

During this week's Winter Meetings at Walt Disney World's Swan and Dolphin Resort, the Devil Rays are believed to have asked that left-handed starter Chuck James be included in the potential deal. But the Braves are very reluctant to trade the 25-year-old southpaw, who is coming off an 11-win rookie season.

The Braves want Baldelli, a 25-year-old outfielder, to serve as their leadoff hitter and starting left fielder this year. If Andruw Jones were to exit via free agency at the end of the 2007 season, Baldelli would become the club's center fielder of the future.

His current contract includes three club options that run through the end of the 2011 season. The maximum annual salary that he'd earn would be $9 million. Given the success he's had in his first three big-league seasons, he could become one of the game's top bargains.

MLB.com has learned that the interest in Baldelli is great enough that the Braves have at least opened themselves to the thought of including top catching prospect Jarrod Saltalamacchia in these trade offers. They also would be willing to include shortstop Yunel Escobar, who opened a lot of eyes while hitting .407 to win the batting crown in the Arizona Fall League.

But the Devil Rays are expected to demand that a starting pitcher be included. Thus, instead of James, the Braves may need to include right-handed starter Kyle Davies, whose promising future was clouded by the groin injury that caused him to miss 3 1/2 months of the 2006 season.

One Braves scout said the club might be willing to deal Davies. But if they were to do so, they'd do so with the knowledge that they are severely depleting the depth of Major League-ready starting pitchers. On Thursday, they traded left-handed starter Horacio Ramirez to the Mariners in order to get highly-touted right-handed reliever Rafael Soriano.

If the Braves were to include Davies in a deal that also included either Saltalamacchia or Escobar, they would likely head to Spring Training with Lance Cormier targeted to be their fifth starter. Cormier's late-season success put him in position for this role.

But after Cormier, there are very few starting options on the current 40-man roster. Oscar Villarreal has shown he could be used in emergency situations and Jonathan Johnson made three starts for Triple-A Richmond in 2006.

At the beginning of next season, top pitching prospects like Matt Harrison and Jo-Jo Reyes wouldn't be considered to be ready for the Major League level. There's also no guarantee that they would even be ready by July or August.

With Mike Hampton coming back from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, the Braves need to make sure they have some depth in their rotation, which will once again be headed by John Smoltz, who will celebrate his 40th birthday in May.

Thus it may be difficult to complete this deal for Baldelli, who hit .302 and collected 46 extra-base hits in just 364 at-bats this year. But there's no doubt that he's become their top target on the trade market.

Along with being one of the game's top young outfielders, the attraction of Baldelli is enhanced by his contract. His base salary of $750,000 in 2007 would rise to $2.5 million if he were able to compile at least 600 plate appearances. Given that he'd likely serve as Atlanta's leadoff hitter, that would be a very attainable figure.

During the 2008 season, Baldelli wouldn't earn more than $4 million. The final three years (2009-11) of his contract all include club options with a $2 million buyout. With the exercising of each option, he will cost his employer $6 milllion in 2009, $8 million in 2010 and $9 million in 2011.

This could prove to be a definite bargain for a player like Baldelli, who has hit .289 with 43 homers in 384 career big-league games. He's been successful in 54 of his 69 career stolen-base attempts and owns a .451 career slugging percentage.

During his 2003 rookie season, Baldelli compiled 637 at-bats and managed to hit .289 with 11 homers and 27 stolen bases. Because of a troublesome quadriceps muscle and torn left anterior cruciate ligament, he played in just 136 games in 2004.

While rehabbing from the ACL surgery in June 2005, Baldelli injured his right elbow and needed Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. He returned to action this year on June 7 and remained healthy enough to hit over .300 in three of the season's final four months.

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