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Baldelli to stay in Tampa through 2011 season

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Piece by piece, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are laying the foundation for what new ownership expects to be a bright future.

Center fielder Rocco Baldelli signed a long-term contract Thursday that guarantees him $9 million over three years and could be worth $32 million for six seasons, a move reflecting principal owner Stuart Sternberg's commitment to keep a promising core of young talent together.

"He and Carl Crawford represent two premier building blocks of the organization," team president Matt Silverman said.

Last April, Crawford signed a similar six-year deal that could be worth up to $32.5 million. Baldelli's contract is designed to keep the young outfielders in the same lineup well into what the last-place Devil Rays expect to be a dramatic turnaround on the field.

The 24-year-old Baldelli is viewed as one of the keys to the future, even though he missed last season with knee and elbow injuries. He hit .289 with 11 homers and 78 RBI as a rookie in 2003 and batted .280 with 16 homers the following year.

The speedy center fielder tore a knee ligament playing with his younger brother in the backyard of their Rhode Island home in October 2004. He was on the verge of rejoining the Devil Rays last summer when he tore a ligament in his right elbow and had to undergo Tommy John surgery.

Silverman said team doctors examined Baldelli and gave him a "clean bill of health."

"That news, combined with Rocco's great work ethic and dedication to his rehabilitation, gave us the confidence to make this deal," Silverman said.

Baldelli negotiated terms without help from an agent, meeting several times with executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. Baldelli had agent Casey Close review the contract language.

Baldelli said he wasn't as interested in maximizing his earning potential as he was in remaining with Tampa Bay.

"I didn't sign this deal just to get a deal done. I did it because I like the direction the organization is going," Baldelli said. "I want to be a part of this team going on to build a winning tradition."

His deal guarantees him $2 million next year, $750,000 in 2007 and $2.25 million 2008, but if he has 600 plate appearances next year his 2007 salary goes up to $2.5 million and his 2008 salary increases to $4.5 million.

Tampa Bay has a $6 million option for 2009 with a $4 million buyout. If the Devil Rays exercise that, they get an $8 million option for 2010 and a $9 million option for 2011 that must be exercised together. Those options carry a $2 million buyout.

If he fails to get 600 plate appearances next season and trigger the escalators, he would have the chance to earn performance bonuses in 2007 and 2008.

New ownership adopted the catchy marketing slogan "Under Construction" when Sternberg took over the team from former managing general partner Vince Naimoli. Silverman was appointed team president and Friedman was promoted to his post as the club's top baseball executive.

Former Houston Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker was hired last week to work with Friedman, who has final say on baseball moves.

The next step will likely be the hiring of a manager, with Friedman expected to choose between Los Angeles Angels bench coach Joe Maddon and incumbent Devil Rays bench coach John McLaren.

Former New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine was also a finalist. However, he's been considered a long shot from the start because the Devil Rays are not likely to spend the millions it might take to pry him away from his current job with Japan League champion Chiba Lotte.

Friedman, speaking by telephone Thursday from the general managers' meetings in Indian Wells, Calif., declined to comment on the status of the managerial search.