Person of Interest: Blue Jays managerial candidate Rocco Baldelli

MLB insider Shi Davidi joins the Jeff Blair Show, for his latest update on the Blue Jays managerial search, with the reports being that they've narrowed that search down to five candidates.

Now that the Toronto Blue Jays have completed preliminary interviews for their open managerial job, they’re narrowing their focus with in-person interviews for a group of finalists.

As reported by Shi Davidi on Tuesday, the Blue Jays are believed to have five finalists including Astros bench coach Joe Espada, Giants farm director David Bell, Rays major-league field coordinator Rocco Baldelli and Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde.

While the managerial search continues, we’ll take a closer look at the finalists starting with the youngest of the four known options…

As a young centre fielder, Rocco Baldelli showed so much promise that the Rays took him sixth overall in the amateur draft. That ability soon translated into results, and Baseball America named Baldelli its No. 2 prospect ahead of the 2003 season.

It was around that time former Devil Rays owner Vince Naimoli pushed expectations to another level. No doubt impressed by the right-handed-hitting centre fielder wearing No. 5, Naimoli called Baldelli a “young (Joe) DiMaggio.”

For a while, the hype seemed warranted. Baldelli debuted at 21 years old with a stellar 2003 season that earned him a third-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting behind Angel Berroa and Hideki Matsui. He followed that up with a similarly strong 2004 only to miss the entire 2005 season due to injuries.

That would mark the beginning of some serious and ultimately career-ending health issues for Baldelli, though he did play four more seasons with the Rays and one more with the Red Sox. Eventually he was diagnosed with a form of mitochondrial channelopathy, a tough-to-diagnose condition that causes severe muscle fatigue.

“I have no regrets,” he told the Boston Globe after retiring. “I played major league baseball. I got to the big leagues and I had some moments I’ll never forget.”

Among them: a decisive single off of Jon Lester in Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS and a home run off of Ryan Madson in Game 5 of the 2008 World Series.

After Baldelli’s playing career ended he spent four years in the Rays’ front office as a special assistant in baseball operations, particularly scouting and player development.

That led to a role as the Rays’ first base coach; in 2015 Baldelli became the youngest coach in Rays history at age 33. He stayed in that role for three years before moving to the newly created role of major-league field coordinator ahead of the 2018 season. In that role, Baldelli helped manager Kevin Cash and bench coach Charlie Montoyo during games while continuing his work on outfield defence and positioning.

“Rocco has been promoted to a position that will take full advantage of his personal strengths,” Cash said when the position was announced. “A significant part of Rocco’s job as major-league field coordinator will be making sure that we successfully implement these ideas (on how to improve).”

The Blue Jays aren’t the only ones showing interest in Baldelli. He has interviewed for the managerial openings in Texas, Cincinnati and Minnesota, and the Angels reportedly have interest, too.

When GM Ross Atkins discussed the Blue Jays’ managerial search earlier this month, he noted that the Astros and Rays are “a little bit ahead of the curve” when it comes to putting their players in position to succeed by providing them with useful in-game information. Baldelli has experience doing just that while working with the Tampa Bay outfielders, who carry note cards with them to the outfield and consult them for positioning information between plays.

In a broader sense, the Rays are as progressive an organization as you’ll find in major-league baseball. Baldelli’s experience working with Cash and the Rays’ front office would give him valuable perspective, as does his time as a player. Baldelli enjoyed some highs over the course of seven big-league seasons, but he’s also no stranger to adversity on and off the field. Considering that Atkins cited “toughness” as a priority for the next Blue Jays manager, that experience is relevant.

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