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Baldelli signs; Smoltz on deck

Outfielder added to Red Sox' menu

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / January 9, 2009
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The timing was perfect. With Rocco Baldelli already set to receive the Tony Conigliaro Award at last night's Boston Baseball Writers dinner, it seemed convenient that he pick up a contract as well.

So it was that Baldelli found himself holding up jersey No. 5 - Nomar Garciaparra's old number - during a press conference at the Westin Waterfront Hotel yesterday afternoon, being introduced as the newest member of the Red Sox. Then he found himself being introduced at the head table, and getting a standing ovation from a packed house.

Not bad for a New England native (Cumberland, R.I.), though not exactly the biggest Sox fan growing up.

"It seems like almost every offseason we are looking for a young, really talented righthanded-hitting outfielder to complement the core of outfielders that we have," general manager Theo Epstein said. "Rocco obviously is talented enough to start for any club, but due to circumstances the last couple of years and the evolution of his career, it seemed like the right time and the right fit where he could help us out as an extra outfielder, but be a pretty dynamic one."

So while the Yankees (and even the Rays) have been signing some of the biggest names on the free agent market, the Red Sox have stuck more to bargain signings after their failed pursuit of Mark Teixeira. They've been giving contracts for $5 million instead of $150 million. But unlike those $100 million signees, the newest Sox come with a few questions, including exactly how often they'll be on the field.

After agreeing to terms with pitcher Brad Penny and catcher Josh Bard - both coming off injury-marred seasons - the Sox have added Baldelli and pitcher John Smoltz. Baldelli, 27, has battled well-publicized health issues, and Smoltz is coming off shoulder surgery that will likely delay his arrival at Fenway Park until May.

Only the signing of Baldelli is official. Smoltz's deal - first reported by the Associated Press - is likely to be announced in the coming days. So the oft-rumored marriage between Baldelli and the Sox is now official, with the word "optimism" repeated throughout his press conference.

Neither Baldelli nor Smoltz is a sure thing, and they'll be paid accordingly, with incentive-laden contracts. Between the two deals, there are more than $10 million in bonuses.

Baldelli will get a $500,000 base salary, with another $1.75 million if he remains on the active roster all season, according to a baseball source. He has other bonuses (worth $5.25 million) that could bring the contract to $7.5 million if he reaches 600 plate appearances, though that is unlikely.

Smoltz, who has pitched only for the Braves during his 20-year career, will earn a $5 million guarantee with $5 million in bonuses.

"I was going to withhold comment until the announcement of my signing with a new team, but I now feel the need to clear up any misconceptions and inaccuracies about the contract negotiations between myself and the Atlanta Braves," the 41-year-old Smoltz said in a statement. "There were large discrepancies between the offer from the Braves and offers from other teams."

Smoltz is the only pitcher to compile at least 200 wins (210) and 150 saves (154).

As for Baldelli, once the Rays declined their $6 million option, paying him a $4 million buyout, the Red Sox stepped in. He is attractive because he can play all three outfield positions. But there are health concerns.

"I think there's a recognition on the part of the club that this is going to be an ongoing process, but there's a lot of optimism," Epstein said. "He's left no stone unturned on his own behalf in finding answers, and he's started to find really significant answers and good answers. We wouldn't have made this signing if we weren't really optimistic that he could make a significant contribution. If there are stumbling blocks along the way, as there may be for any athlete, we'll remain partners in trying to get to the bottom of it."

Baldelli missed the last 124 games in 2007, then the first four months of 2008. But he came back to play an integral role in the upstart Rays' trip to the World Series, starting Game 2 against the Phillies. He played in 28 games last season, hitting .263 with four home runs and 13 RBIs. He added two homers and six RBIs in 20 postseason at-bats, including homers in Game 5 of the World Series and Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the Sox.

After being diagnosed with a mitochondrial disorder, Baldelli was rediagnosed this offseason. He emphasized yesterday that he had not been misdiagnosed, but that doctors have refined their diagnosis to channelopathy. The disease is more treatable than the initial diagnosis, and Baldelli has undergone treatment and testing at the Cleveland Clinic and Massachusetts General Hospital.

"[At the start of last season], I was still trying to go out and play every single day, and that was the only option to me at the time," Baldelli said. "Mentally, I've never been in a situation where I haven't been an everyday player, and mentally, that was an adjustment to me. Eventually, that wore me down a little bit. I came to the conclusion that the best thing for me and my career and also for the team that I'm on is that I take a step back and not be an everyday player and try to accept what my body will give me."

Baldelli will back up Jason Bay, Jacoby Ellsbury, and J.D. Drew. The Sox probably will sign a backup first baseman with outfield experience - perhaps Mark Kotsay - in case Baldelli can't play as much as they would like.

"I think it's going to be an ongoing process for me," Baldelli said. "It's going to be something I'm going to have to embrace and understand that there's always going to be something different that could help me and I'm willing to do whatever I need to."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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