The mold has been cast, but the Cubs insist it has not been cast in stone.
The free-agent signing Tuesday of right-handed pitcher Scott Baker fits the Cubs’ mold of getting a veteran player on a relatively inexpensive contract as they take their rebuilding plan into Year 2.
Last winter, the Cubs signed pitcher Paul Maholm to a similar deal but traded him at the end of July after they had fallen far out of playoff contention.
That may well happen with Baker, whom the Cubs inked to a one-year deal worth $5.5 million with incentives that could make the contract worth $7 million.
Cubs president Theo Epstein, however, said it doesn’t have to play out that way.
“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,” Epstein said during a media briefing Tuesday at Wrigley Field. “There’s a chance that Scott likes it here in Chicago and we like what we have in him, (then) we can talk about making this a longer-term relationship at some point.
“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.”
There are some different variables with the 31-year-old Baker, who pitched for the Minnesota Twins from 2005-11. The biggest is that he missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow April 17.
Epstein said the Cubs’ medical team described Baker’s recovery as “an ideal Tommy John rehab so far” and that the Cubs hope he can pitch 5-6 innings per start at the beginning of the 2013 season. For his part, Baker seemed confident.
“Arm’s great,” he said. “The rehab process has gone as well as it possibly could thus far. I think there’s a lot of things to be excited about next season. I’m very thankful for this opportunity.”
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Baker is 63-48 in his career with an ERA of 4.15 and a WHIP (walks plus hits per 1 inning pitched) of 4.37. He went 15-9 in 2009 for the Twins, who declined to pick up his $9.25 million option for 2013.
“The way the throwing program works, basically I’d just like to jump right into spring training,” he said. “Obviously, that’s up to the medical staff and the coaching staff. That’s kind of what I’m working toward, to be ready for spring training and kind of use those spring-training starts as a rehab process.
“I have every intention of being a competitive pitcher next year right way.”
Baker joins a starting rotation that consists of right-handers Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija and left-hander Travis Wood. Garza’s season ended in July with a “stress reaction” in his right elbow, and he’s due to get another scan of the elbow this week.
Samardzija’s year was over in early September because 2012 was his first full season as a major-league starter and the Cubs were concerned about his innings count. The Cubs figure to acquire one, and possibly two more, midrange starting pitchers before the off-season is over.
As for Baker, Epstein said the Cubs were “very comfortable placing our bet on Scott Baker” because of his character and the high success rate of Tommy John surgeries.
“This is, in my opinion, an underrated pitcher, someone who has a very consistent track record of success,” Epstein said. “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.”Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.