MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs guaranteed Scott Baker $5.5 million last November, even though he didn’t throw a single pitch for the Minnesota Twins in 2012, and couldn’t showcase his skills with a bullpen session.
The Cubs reasoned that Tommy John surgery comes with a predictable rehab and a success rate around 95 percent. This would be one more calculated medical risk for an organization filled with several buy-low players with upside. Now they have to be wondering if Baker is the outlier.
The Cubs suspended Baker’s throwing program after an MRI showed something with his right elbow. Dr. Stephen Gryzlo, the team orthopaedist, will be in Arizona this weekend to read the images again, conduct a physical exam and get a better feel for the extent of the injury.
Until then, the Cubs won’t speculate about the timetable for Baker’s return.
“It’s just too soon to really know,” manager Dale Sveum said before Tuesday’s 5-4 win over the Texas Rangers at HoHoKam Stadium. “It’s more disappointing for him as a guy that’s worked that hard and did everything (right) – nothing to warrant (getting) shutdown. But, hopefully, it’s not that big a deal. It’s just a wait-and-see thing right now.”
All the depth the Cubs thought they stockpiled over the winter has vanished. With Matt Garza (lat) sidelined until somewhere around May 1, that leaves five starters – Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood, Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva – and questions about who might be No. 6 and No. 7. Chris Rusin, the 26-year-old lefthander, is viewed as the next man up on the depth chart.
So 40 percent of the projected rotation will begin the season on the disabled list, and the Cubs don’t know exactly when Garza and Baker will throw from a mound again, much less build up their pitch counts to where they can start a big-league game in front of 40,000 fans.
Baker felt good immediately after facing six hitters and getting one out during the first inning of Sunday’s 12-6 loss to the Oakland’s A’s in Phoenix. But the soreness was there the morning after pitching in his first game in almost 18 months.
“I account that to adrenaline,” Baker said. “You feel good and you’re still kind of amped up a little bit. And as that starts to subside, some of those things set in.
“With the discomfort I was having the next day, I kind of figured they were going to suspend my throwing program, regardless of the MRI. At this point, it is what it is. We’ll just have to wait and see what Doc has to say and kind of reassess things.”
Baker has talked with other players who’ve returned from Tommy John surgery and realized it’s common to have setbacks. Team officials have observed the active role he’s taken in his rehab, asking good questions and wanting to understand the logic behind each step.
“That can be the frustrating thing about it,” Baker said. “I just wanted to make sure I did things the right way. And I still feel like I did, regardless of whatever Doc says here shortly. All I can do is continue to progress and hopefully this is a short-term thing.
“There’s really not much else I can do.”
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It said something about the pitching market that Baker left other offers on the table and a consensus formed around the idea that this would be a reasonable investment. The reality is what team president Theo Epstein said that day at the Wrigley Field press conference.
“Obviously, you’d love to sign pitchers who are 100 percent healthy and have never been hurt,” Epstein said. “But those animals don’t really exist.”
Which makes you wonder what happens when the next Cubs pitcher needs to go for an MRI.
At least Baker still had a sense of gallows humor when he was asked how many pitches he threw against the A’s (giving up a three-run homer and two walks).
“I don’t know. Enough, I guess,” Baker said with a smile. “I felt fortunate enough to not have any setbacks (to this point). Hopefully, this is something that’s a little speed bump and you keep moving.”