Chicago Cubs

Scott Baker has something to prove with Cubs

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Scott Baker has something to prove with Cubs

Updated: 8:30 p.m.

Scott Baker is on the long road back from Tommy John surgery. He believes he will be ready to go in spring training and part of the Opening Day rotation. Those are the mile markers in his mind.

Virtually every day is mapped out from here until the morning pitchers and catchers report to the Cubs complex in Arizona. Baker wasnt going to be told what to do in his rehab program he wanted to know the how and why. Being flipped at the trade deadline isnt a concern.

Thats kind of a far stretch, Baker said Tuesday at Wrigley Field. Well just have to see how things work out. First and foremost, I want to be healthy and productive. And I feel like that would be getting a little ahead of myself trying to think about contenders and all that.

The Cubs began to address their biggest offseason need with a low-risk, short-term commitment. It exactly fits the profile of what Theo Epsteins front office is trying to do this winter.

Baker will get 5.5 million with built-in incentives that could be worth an additional 1.5 million as well as the platform to prove himself again on the North Side. The 31-year-old right-hander had spent his entire career with the Minnesota Twins, going 63-48 with a 4.15 ERA and working almost exclusively as a starter.

This is the blueprint the Cubs used last winter with Paul Maholm, who was shut down late in the 2011 season with a shoulder issue. The veteran left-hander got 4.25 million, plus a 6.5 million club option for 2013.

Maholm (13-11, 3.67 ERA in 2012) had only pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates and benefitted from a change of scenery, embracing the game plans designed by manager Dale Sveum, pitching coach Chris Bosio and their staff.

Maholm wound up getting traded to the Atlanta Braves in a deadline deal involving Arodys Vizcaino, whos recovering from Tommy John surgery and could be a factor in the Cubs rotation at some point in 2013.

Baker doesnt think hes Maholm 2.0, and Epstein allowed for the possibility of an extension, that hes more than a four-month rental.

If we catch some breaks and Scott manages to stay healthy, Epstein said, were going to look up and hell have outpitched some guys who signed for a lot more money than he did. I think theres a chance that Scott likes it here in Chicago, and we like what we have in him and we can talk about making this a longer-term relationship at a point down the road.

Baker went 8-6 with a 3.14 ERA in 2011, but missed last season while recovering from the Tommy John procedure and rehabbing his right elbow. He has posted 770 strikeouts against 224 walks in 958 innings in the big leagues.

Epstein thinks Baker can take his career to the next level here. Baker can use the advanced scouting the same way Maholm and Ryan Dempster did last season, when they became two of the hottest pitchers in baseball.

Scott Baker is a pitch-maker, Epstein said. Hes somebody that can go out and execute a game plan against the best lineups. When hes commanding and healthy, hell have a lot of success in this division.

For his part, Baker took a leap of faith. He said he didnt have any existing relationships with anyone in the clubhouse, the front office or on the coaching staff that helped convince him to sign here. He wasnt scared away by the rebuilding project after a season in which the Cubs lost 101 games.

That doesnt necessarily concern me, Baker said. With the new front office, were going to put a good product on the field and give us a chance to win some ballgames. Being in an organization like this, there are obviously a lot of expectations. I can guarantee you that everybody they put out there is going to be giving it everything they got.

As long as theyre healthy

I have every intention of being a competitive pitcher next year, right away, Baker said.

Are You Smarter than a Cubs/White Sox Fan? Pt. 2

Are You Smarter than a Cubs/White Sox Fan? Pt. 2

The crosstown rivalry doesn't end on the diamond.

Both Cubs and White Sox fans are highly competitive when it comes to trivia, too. 

We found that out when we bounced around Guaranteed Rate Field to quiz North and South Siders in a special edition of "Are You Smarter than a Cubs/White Sox Fan?" 

Watch the video above as we pitted fans against each other for the chance to win a killer shirt.

With or without Justin Verlander, Jake Arrieta expects Cubs to stay in first place: ‘We have the pieces’

With or without Justin Verlander, Jake Arrieta expects Cubs to stay in first place: ‘We have the pieces’

The Cubs already have a Cy Young Award winner, someone who was transforming into the hottest pitcher on the planet around this time in 2015, and then beat the Cleveland Indians twice on the road in last year’s World Series.

So the Cubs can keep discussing Justin Verlander and trying to figure out the price point where it makes sense, what caliber prospects they would have to give up and how much money the Detroit Tigers would have to kick in to cover a bill that could soar toward $90 million. 

But Jake Arrieta showed why the Cubs might finally start to run away from the division and become a very dangerous team in October, dominating the White Sox on Wednesday night at Guaranteed Rate Field during an 8-3 win that vaulted them into first place in the National League Central.          

“We expect to remain in first place,” Arrieta said. “We know it’s going to be a tough task, but that’s kind of what you deal with at the highest level of sports. You expect to have really good competition from teams that are either equal with you or close behind.

“We feel like we have the group to separate ourselves at this point in time and remain in first place for the remainder of the way.”

The Cubs probably don’t have the blue-chip prospects – and the appetite to raid their farm system again – to blow away the Oakland A’s and win a bidding war for Sonny Gray. The Cubs kick the tires on everything, but Yu Darvish would be a rental and the Texas Rangers are torn over what to do with their Japanese star. 

This is another reason why the Cubs are focusing on adding a veteran backup catcher and strengthening the bullpen before the July 31 trade deadline: Arrieta Watch is back, taking a no-hitter into the fifth inning in front of a sellout crowd of 38,517 before Omar Narvaez drilled a ground-rule double into the right-center field seats.  

The Cubs are 10-2 since trading for Jose Quintana during the All-Star break, erasing a 5.5-game deficit against the Milwaukee Brewers heading into this weekend’s showdown at Miller Park. At 53-47, the Cubs are a season-high six games over .500, and it all starts with pitching.  

“I think we’ve got the pieces to get it done,” Arrieta said. “If there’s a situation where we can get another guy and not lose any key players, it might work in our favor.

“Obviously, when we traded for Quintana, that’s a huge addition to our ballclub. This guy’s really good. He works his butt off. And just seeing how he carries himself in between starts is a really great sign. To have a guy like that who works extremely hard and cares about the team winning ballgames – you can’t replace that.

“That trade right there in itself is one that’s going to pay huge dividends for this ballclub, not only for this year, but for the next couple years. But we’re a great team right now, and I think we have the pieces to get it done.”  

Arrieta was on cruise control until Yoan Moncada launched his 98th and final pitch – an 0-2 curveball – 409 feet over the center-field wall with two outs in the seventh inning. Arrieta only allowed those two hits, giving up two runs and finishing with five strikeouts against two walks, continuing the correction super-agent Scott Boras predicted when the Chicago media and Cubs fans wondered about his flashes of diminished velocity and spikes in hard contact during a free-agency push.

Arrieta has methodically put together 10 wins and three straight quality starts after the All-Star break, chopping his ERA down from 5.44 in the middle of May to 4.03. Ricky Renteria’s White Sox are obviously tanking for the future and there are a lot of conditions attached to this statement: 

But if Arrieta pitches like this, Jon Lester continues to be one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation, Quintana excels in a pennant race and Kyle Hendricks regains his feel and rhythm after six-plus weeks on the disabled list, then the Cubs might have a better playoff rotation than the one that ended the 108-year drought.     

“We’re feelin’ it,” Arrieta said, thinking back to last summer, when Theo Epstein’s front office added 100-mph closer Aroldis Chapman to a team with close to a 99-percent chance of making the playoffs. “I remember last year we were in this clubhouse around this same time, and it’s no different.” 

Look at the competition: The Washington Nationals might be forced into adding a frontline starter now that Stephen Strasburg is headed to the 10-day disabled list with a nerve impingement in his right forearm. The Los Angeles Dodgers are hoping a strained lower back won’t stop Clayton Kershaw from making a few tune-up starts in September before becoming their Game 1 starter in October.

With or without Verlander, the Cubs are ramping up to defend their title.

“I’m going to continue to get stronger as the year progresses,” Arrieta said. “I feel like my best baseball, my best pitching, is still ahead of me. And I’m ready for it.”