Signing Scott Baker, Then And Now
Just yesterday I was reflecting on what it was like to talk about and analyze transactions before we had all the numbers and understanding we have today. It never felt hopeless — if anything, I think writers might’ve been more confident — but the old way seems so foreign now, so inclined to beat around bushes when today we’re equipped to just dig them up out of the ground. That’s probably not what that expression means. These days we just go about things differently, with presumably more complicated thought processes, and I thought it might be fun to attempt a side-by-side comparison. The Mariners have made a move allowing for just such an attempt, officially signing Scott Baker to a minor-league contract.
He’ll get $1 million if he makes the team, and he could earn an additional $3.25 million if he were to hit all his incentives. But as of today, it’s a low-risk, minor-league deal, costing the Mariners an almost negligible sum. I want to look at this, quickly, in an older way and a newer way. It’s been a while since I wrote in the older way, so what follows is just a best guess, but here’s to analyzing this Scott Baker acquisition over the years.
The Mariners have been in the market for starting-rotation help, and in Baker they’ve identified a potential massive bargain. It’s true that Baker is coming off Tommy John surgery, and that’s a very involved operation, but it’s never been more effective than it is today, and it’s more of a career-delayer than a career-destroyer. If Baker isn’t good, he’ll cost the Mariners next to nothing. If his arm doesn’t look right, they can keep him in the minors or cut him in spring, and there’s little harm done. But if Baker’s back to the old Scott Baker, well, the old, healthy Scott Baker was a reliable above-average starting pitcher with more strikeouts than you might’ve expected from his stuff. He had a ton of value when he was healthy, and he says he’s healthy again now, and he did, after all, pass the Mariners’ physical.
Sure, you could drop tens of millions of dollars on an Ervin Santana or a Ubaldo Jimenez. Maybe that gives you a little more certainty. That’s also a hefty commitment, and if Baker’s back, he’s about as good as anything else available. This is a brilliant move for the Mariners to make, with plenty more upside than downside. Yeah, maybe Baker does nothing at all. Or maybe he makes 30 starts with a sub-4 ERA. There aren’t many ways for this to look like a mistake, but there are plenty of ways for it to look like a bargain. This is an example of smart shopping.
Every year, every team in baseball brings some starters to spring training on minor-league contracts. Scott Baker’s more interesting than most of them are, given his history, and given that he’s coming off something as understood these days as Tommy John surgery. While getting Baker might not stop the Mariners from pursuing other starters, he does give them a potential depth option, to bolster the group behind Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma. The Mariners aren’t out any real money if Baker doesn’t look sharp. All this is is a roll of the dice to see if Baker looks like his old familiar self.
Because his old familiar self was a quality starting pitcher. He isn’t less than that now because of a decline — he’s less than that now because of injury, and he might well bounce back. But then, that might not happen. As much as Tommy John recovery seems so routine these days, the Cubs got basically nothing out of Baker in 2013. Ryan Madson hasn’t pitched since 2011. Cory Luebke hasn’t pitched since April 2012. Nothing about this process is automatic, and nothing about this process assures a 100% return to effectiveness.
Consider how neat it is that the Mariners were able to get Baker on a minor-league deal. Now consider that the MLB market allowed for that to happen. Clearly, no one else sees Baker as a safe investment, including his former teams, and that strikes me as not insignificant. Maybe overly cautious, but not insignificant. 171 starters started at least a game in the majors in 2011 and 2013. Baker’s average fastball lost 2.6 miles per hour. Five starters lost that much or more. Ricky Romero, these days, is a disaster. Roy Halladay had shoulder problems and retired. Ramon Ortiz was awful. CC Sabathia got worse. Jered Weaver got worse. It’s not good to lose ticks, especially when you drop into the 80s.
And maybe a part of that was just Baker finally getting back on a mound. Maybe he’s only now returning to full arm strength and full pitching confidence. But the last time he pitched, well removed from surgery, he wasn’t quite himself. So he still has some things to prove. It’s not unreasonable to think that Scott Baker could bounce back, but it would be unreasonable to expect it.
I think that covers it. I think, in the past, I would’ve been a lot more optimistic about a signing like this. I still like it — there really isn’t much downside at all — but I feel like I’m a little more realistic about Baker’s chances of being any good. There still exist the same floor and the same ceiling, but in my mind, the probabilities have shifted. There’s information in the fact that Baker’s coming off surgery. There’s information in the fact that the market allowed him to sign this particular contract. Seattle’s got a big park, and a good opportunity, but obviously no one thought Baker was worth a guarantee, and I don’t feel right ignoring that.
Ultimately though, what’s most important is that the Mariners did get a guy with upside at a low cost. There’s no way to dislike this, that I can come up with. The Mariners haven’t sacrificed anything for the Scott Baker chance, and the more talented starters you have, the better your odds of getting a good rotation from the group. How this could go wrong is if the Mariners give Baker too many big-league starts to be not good, but there’s nothing to complain about until there’s something to complain about. Scott Baker’s a Mariner now, and they’ve done a lot worse.