Yesterday the Cubs made their first major (that is a relative word) move of the offseason, signing right-handed starting pitcher Scott Baker to a one-year, $5.5 million deal, which comes with as much as $1.5 million in incentives.
Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein was his usual combination of cagey and candid when discussing the signing. Among his thoughts (quotes available here, here, here, here, and here), and my reactions:
- On the nature of the one-year deal, and the future for Baker with the Cubs: “If we catch some breaks and Scott manages to stay healthy, we’re going to look up and he’ll have outpitched some guys who signed for a lot more money than he did. There’s a chance that Scott likes it here in Chicago and we like what we have in him, we can talk about making this a longer-term relationship at some point.” I think there’s some genuineness there, about which more at the end of this piece.
- On Baker as a flippable asset at the 2013 trade deadline: “First of all, we hope our season goes better [than 2012] and we’re not in that position. If we are out of it and we are trying to build a healthier organization, we are going to flip some players. You don’t necessarily flip them all. If you have somebody’s who’s a good fit on the field and off the field, you can look to extend them.” I love that he flat out says the things that he says. If we suck, we’re going to unload. He just owns that uncomfortable stage of the rebuild, and I appreciate the candor.
- On Baker as a pitcher: “This is, in my opinion, an underrated pitcher, someone who has a very consistent track record of success. He does things that we value. He throws strikes consistently. He’s not a guy who issues walks. We had a problem with that last year. He’s somebody who can get some swing-and-miss. He’s got three solid pitches and a couple variance. If you count the sinker and cutter, he’s got four or five pitches. He can really command well and execute a game plan. Scott Baker is a pitch maker. He’s somebody that can go out and execute a game plan against the best lineups. When he’s commanding and healthy, he’ll have a lot of success.” I was totally with Theo until that “Scott Baker is a pitch maker” line. That may be true, but it smacks of the kind of cliche we might have heard from Generic Front Office X. The rest was all good, though.
- On the risks in signing Baker: “If you have to sign a pitcher who is coming off surgery, Tommy John is the one you want him to come off because it’s a very predictable rehab with a very strong success rate, upwards of 95 percent …. You don’t set out looking for Tommy John guys. But the reality is it’s not exactly a buyer’s market for pitching out there right now. You have to take your risks. Do you want to take a risk on the guy with bad makeup? Do you want to take a risk on the guy with bad command? Or do you want to take a risk on a guy you really believe in who’s coming off Tommy John surgery at an appropriate value point. We’re very comfortable placing our bet on Scott Baker.” Well, I mean, strictly speaking, I’d like to take a player with none of those risks, but Theo’s point is well-taken, all things considered.
- On Baker’s recovery time line (he had surgery in April): “He’s put the work in to get himself on an excellent timetable so he’s got pretty much every day plotted out from here through Spring Training. If things go perfectly, he’ll be stretched out to five or six innings for that first week of the season.” So, I guess we should hope for Opening Day, but not necessarily expect it.
- More on Baker’s recovery, which is about as good as it gets so far: “Obviously there are no certainties on rehabs, but we spent quite a bit of time on the medical and on the rehab, and it was described by our staff as an ideal Tommy John rehab so far. Knock on wood. Everything has gone perfectly so far, and he has really attacked it in an ideal manner. He has been sort of very curious about the nature of the rehab, the nature of the surgery. He spent some time to figure out different things he can do to put himself in good position. He understands that a lot of Tommy John rehab is about your shoulder and getting your shoulder in as strong condition as possible. He’s put the work in to get himself on an excellent timetable. He has every day plotted out from here to spring training. If things go perfectly he will be stretched out to about five or six innings by that first week of the season. We’re going to use good judgment every step of the way. It’s not important if it’s Opening Day or 10 days into the season as it is that he comes back healthy.”
Baker also spoke to the media, and shared his thoughts on the signing (quotes available from the same stories above):
- On why he chose the Cubs: “This is an unbelievable opportunity for me and my family. Obviously, it’s a big season for me personally, coming off an injury, but I wanted somewhere that my family could enjoy and where I could help the team be productive.” Translation: I was looking for a comfortable place where I could try and have a good season, and build up some free agent value. I’m fine with that. Make it happen, Scott.
- On his expectations for the season: “I’m not going to promise 20 wins and 200 innings. I haven’t pitched in a year, I didn’t pitch obviously last season, and it’s going to be tough, but I’m willing to put in the work.”
- On becoming a flippable piece: “That’s a far stretch in my opinion. One, I’m coming off an injury. I know it’s an injury with a high success rate. We’ll just have to see how things work out. First and foremost, I want to be healthy and productive and I feel that would be getting a little ahead of myself trying to think about [being dealt to a] contender and all that.” Surely the subject was broached by the sides during the negotiation process. If I’m betting, the Cubs were up front with Baker about the possibility of being flipped (maybe even explained why it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world – play on a contender, perhaps showcase yourself in the playoffs on the eve of free agency), but said that, right now, that isn’t the plan. And, arguably, it isn’t.
The reaction in Minnesota seems to be some variation of “well, it would have been nice to have him back, but we’ll move on – he was a risk anyway.” When a guy misses the last season after Tommy John surgery, that’s pretty much the reaction you expect. That doesn’t mean the Twins weren’t trying to re-sign Baker, on whom they declined a $9.25 million option for 2013. From the ESPN Radio affiliate in Minneapolis:
The Minnesota Twins made re-signing Scott Baker a high priority this offseason, but they were spurned on Tuesday when the Chicago Cubs announced a one-year deal with the right-hander instead.
Twins front office members are disappointed a deal couldn’t get done with Baker, who — coming off Tommy John surgery — will be guaranteed $5.5 million with a chance to earn an extra $1.5 million in performance incentives.
The Twins and Baker’s agent, Alan Nero, maintained dialogue regularly over the past six weeks, but Baker’s departure should not come as much of a shock.
According to sources close to Baker, the right-hander made it known he was hoping to have a deal done with the Twins before the end of the regular season, and if that didn’t happen he would strongly consider signing elsewhere. When a deal didn’t happen in September, Baker opened up the door for bidding.
It’s unknown what the Twins’ final offer was, but indications are they were more comfortable with a deal that included less guaranteed money and more incentives.
It sounds like the Twins had decided that they wanted Baker back if they could get him on a hometown discount. As it stood, the Cubs were in a slightly better position to take on the risk (with more guaranteed cash).
A final thought on the future with Baker: because he’s coming off of Tommy John surgery, and the first year back is frequently a slow-starting one (see Adam Wainwright for the most recent example), he may ultimately not be the best flip candidate. So, if the Cubs aren’t going to be competitive in 2013, what’s the point of signing a Baker? Well, aside from the hope of competitiveness and the need to field a reasonably not-God-awful roster, there’s probably a hope that Baker will pitch well, and will so thoroughly enjoy his experience in Chicago that he’ll want to stay for a few more years. If it plays out that way, it isn’t insane to believe that Baker could take a slightly below-market extension from the Cubs – you often hear phrases like “they wanted me more than anyone else when I was rehabbing” when guys sign such deals.
We’ll just see what happens. In the meantime, here’s hoping Baker comes back fully healthy, and fully effective – to whatever end.