His velocity isn't all the way back. At least not yet. But its becoming rather obvious that Scott Baker knows how to make the most of what he has.
In what looks like yet another shrewd starting pitching value signing, Baker has shown that his stuff is already good enough to compete at this level and at this stage of his comeback.
I was admittedly worried about that velo after having seen him in Kane. His slider had good bite and he was locating his slider with precision -- to the point where I turned to my wife and I said, "That's the difference between a major leaguer and a the pitcher we usually see here." That's no knock against the pitchers who have passed through, which includes top pitching prospect Pierce Johnson, but watching Baker command his slider with such consistency was a rare treat you don't normally see at the A ball level.
As for that velo, it has improved by 2 or 3 ticks and while it's still an average fastball -- at best -- it is at least serviceable. Especially when he is commanding everything he throws, which includes that good slider and an occasional change-up. But he's primarily led with that fastball, which only further emphasize his ability to locate early and set hitters up.
But let's step back for a second. It is two starts and there is no chance he can remain this dominant over a larger sample size. At the same time, he's been good enough to be a solid #4 starter, perhaps looking a bit like we might expect from Kyle Hendricks some day.
All that being said, should the Cubs keep Scott Baker?
It's a tricky question with no easy answer. The Cubs aren't exactly strapped for starting pitchers. They rank around the middle of the pack in the NL. They have enough depth to where they'vey had to go with a 6 man staff and are confident enough to approach moving Justin Grimm to the bullpen on a full-time basis. Hendricks will await in AAA next year while Pierce Johnson and C.J. Edwards may start the year in AA next season.
While trades are always possible, in general we can assume that the Cubs will return with Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, and Edwin Jackson. Jackson is signed for 3 more years, the front office considers Jeff Samardzija a core piece and would like to keep him if they are able to come to terms. You may also remember that I talked about Travis Wood as a core piece back in May. Those three could be around for the next few years. For his part, Wood seems very amenable to signing an extension this offseason and I think Samardzija will be more willing to talk after getting his full year to prove himself -- though it hasn't quite worked out as well as he'd hoped.
As reported early this month, we also expect the Cubs to make a serious run at Masahido Tanaka. If that happens, it leaves one spot in the rotation between Chris Rusin, Jake Arrieta, and Scott Baker. Even if they don't, one of those pitchers will be the odd man out and will have to move to the bullpen or perhaps Iowa.
Panning back a little, we also understand that teams that stick with 5 starters all year long are rare, not to mention lucky, so the Cubs have often talked about building an "8 or 9 man pitching staff". The he re-signing of Baker, the one year remaining on Carlos Villanueva's contract, and the emergence of Hendricks would give the Cubs 8 starters along with the previously mentioned pitchers. Tanaka would give them 9.
The staff could look something like this:
- Masahido Tanaka
- Jeff Samardzija
- Travis Wood (L)
- Edwin Jackson
- Scott Baker/Chris Rusin (L)/Jake Arrieta
- Pedro Strop
- James Russell (L)
- Blake Parker
- Carlos Villanueva
- Justin Grimm
- Zac Rosscup (L)
- Rusin (L) or Arrieta (R)
The bullpen also has Daniel Bard, Chang-Yong Lim, Neil Ramirez, and Alberto Cabrera as hard-throwing options. Cabrera is out of options so he will find himself on the roster or the Cubs will have to move him somehow, someway. If he earns the job this spring and they want to keep him in the bullpen then Grimm, Arrieta, Rusin, Parker, and Rosscup all have options.
So, getting back to Baker -- it's tricky. There is a numbers game here both with the 40 man roster and the 25 man roster. But if you want to look at this in the positive light, it's a sign that the Cubs are making progress when they have so many options heading into the offseason. They won't be scraping to fill spots like they have the first two years. They'll be looking to see how their current pieces fit best.
It may take Baker coming back on an incentive laden deal, one that would give them some flexibility going into the spring. Baker is making it difficult for the Cubs to bring him back on a minor league deal and spring training invite, though that would probably be the ideal situation.
It has taken until September, but Baker is finally making that audition for the Cubs 2014 rotation that we expected him to start a lot earlier. And while it's a small sample and he's still not quite the Scott Baker of old, he's doing everything you could ask for at this stage -- and that is to give the Cubs a glimpse of what he can do. If an offseason of rest and more rehab can bring that fastball up to its normal velocity, then the Cubs might have that steal the Cubs thought they were getting last offseason. But even if he doesn't come all the way back, he's shown he can be plenty good with what he has now.
What do you think?