Despite apparent mutual interest in a return engagement at Target Field, Scott Baker has parted company with the Twins and will head six hours southeast on I-90/94 through the vast, untrodden wilds of Wisconsin to Wrigley Field after signing a one-year deal with the Cubs. The one-year part of the deal makes complete sense as Baker missed his last chance at a huge free agent deal because of Tommy John surgery in March of last year, but is Wrigley really the best place for him to recover his value? Additionally, is one year enough for Baker to get back to the pay scale he’s looking for?
Taking those question in opposite order, whether Baker will be a hot commodity this time next year — as well as whether he’ll be a good gamble on draft day — depends largely on how Baker’s rehab has gone. The Twins don’t have a great history of bringing players back from Tommy John surgery quickly, Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano both struggled mightily in the first part of their return seasons before finding something resembling form in the latter half of the season to grab two of the more recent examples. However, a poor start and strong finish are Baker’s modus operandi anyway and he’s now under the auspices of an entirely different medical staff, though at this point in his rehab track, I don’t think the new staff will change Baker’s timetable except to be more or less aggressive with getting him back on the mound once camp opens.
Though the popular line is that Tommy John surgery takes a year to recover from, the number is actually closer to 13 months, which is a small distinction to make in the realm of medical statistics, but it’s the difference between Baker opening the season on the DL and opening the season with the Cubs. Early word that Baker might not be ready for the start of the season shouldn’t be all that surprising, especially given the flexor injury he had to go with the torn UCL, but once he’s back on the field, he should be good to go. Elbows heal more quickly than shoulders, so that’s the good news, but I don’t think it’s a given that Baker pulls a Strasburg and comes back at 110 percent.
This is all good and well, but the reason Baker’s back in the news isn’t his injury or rehab, but his move. The switch to the NL is a good one for Baker for much-cited reasons. His K/9 had been trending solidly up before his injury and should continue to do so as he comes back. The league switch typically adds 0.57 K/9 to a pitcher’s tally, which puts Baker in the 8.1-8.6 K/9 range assuming his recovery doesn’t set him back too much. He’ll also theoretically walk fewer hitters, but part of Baker’s allure in Minnesota was how few hitters he walked in the first place. If he drops career average much at all, he’ll walk fewer than two per nine.
So, more strikeouts and fewer walks, what’s not to like? Short answer: Summer in Wrigley. If there’s one thing that has kept Baker from being one of the most underrrated fantasy starters over the last couple years — besides the injury last year, obviously — it’s his home run tendencies. For his career, Baker has allowed nearly 1.2 HR/9 and that includes a pair of seasons in pitcher-friendly Target Field. April and May can be tough on hitters in Chicago, but once the weather warms up and the winds switch, the ball doesn’t have much trouble quite literally leaving the park.
I’m a big Baker fan, and if he had moved to, say, the Mets or Padres, I’d sound like Jim Cramer screaming “Buy! Buy! Buy!” but Chicago just isn’t the best of all possible fits for someone as homer-prone as Baker is. Throw in some uncertainty regarding how quickly he’ll be back to full form and there’s a substantial amount of risk associated with Baker right now. The upside is absolutely there as I mentioned above, so in a perfect world everyone would get scared by his risk profile and I’d draft him very late and stash him on the DL until he was ready, but Baker has this sheen about him as a perpetual fantasy sleeper and that could make it hard to get him at a round or price that makes the risk worth taking. That’s just something that’s going to vary by draft and probably ebb and flow with the reports about his health coming out of Arizona.
One additional caveat here of particular interest to NL-only players: I do not believe Baker will end the year with the Chicago Cubs. The best case for both Baker and the Cubs is that he starts the year healthy, pitches the lights out, and gets traded at the deadline for way too high of a return ala Paul Maholm. It’s possible Baker won’t be traded or will be traded to another NL like Maholm was, but it’s a piece worth considering. If you do choose to draft Baker and things go well for him, I’d seriously consider trading him because I can guarantee you the Cubs will do the same.