Scott Baker has inked a minor league deal with the Mariners that could pay him up to $4.25 million if he makes the team and pitches an unknown amount of innings. Check out the original post for the reaction, but it's all good stuff. It's the right deal for the right cost. Low risk with moderate upside to fill out the back of the rotation. His upside is essentially the #3 pitcher that they desire, but the likelihood of him getting back there is far from a sure thing.
Baker is 32, and last season made his return from Tommy John surgery that halted his 2011 season, keeping him out all of 2012. It was a long and slow recovery for Baker, and after signing with the Chicago Cubs for $5.5 million, he only managed to get in three starts. He didn't allow many runs, but he also didn't miss any bats. His fastball velocity was down almost three miles an hour at 88.4, and he didn't really attempt to throw any curveballs or change-ups. Baker has primarily been a four-seam/sinker/slider pitcher in the past, and that's presumably where he'll try to return.
It was clear that Baker wasn't himself when he returned last year, but the fact that he was finally able to return to the mound is encouraging. He's now had the whole offseason to keep healing up, and the Mariners will get to see if his velocity has returned in spring training. It it hasn't, Baker's probably going to struggle missing bats at first, so it will be vital that his control is as excellent as it once was. There's really a lot of things that have to return for Baker to be the pitcher he once was, but the good news is that the pitcher he used to be was wildly underrated.
For years, Baker was a saber crush of sorts, using his excellent control and increasing ability to create swings and misses to profile as an underrated mid-rotation option, even when his ERA betrayed him. Baker's xFIP fell from 4.15 in 2009 to 3.82 and 3.61 in the next two years. His ability to put batters away were a large part of the improved peripherals, topping out at 8.2 K/9 before his body betrayed him, departing 2011 with a career-best 3.15 ERA over 134.2 innings.
One of the biggest reasons for Baker's success was the emergence of his slider as an out pitch. While Baker had always generated solid whiff rates on his slider, the usage of it increased significantly over the years, especially with two strikes.
|Two strikes slider usage|
Baker also started leaning on his four-seam fastball more and his sinker less as he grew more effective, which makes his ability to regain velocity crucial going forward. The way the deal is structured, the Mariners will get plenty of time to see if he can get back to that 90-92 mph range where he's always sat, and if not? No harm, no foul. Baker will be on his way to seek employment elsewhere, or he'll function as a mop-up reliever.
If he's still sitting at 88mph, it's going to be difficult for him to generate the kind of strikeouts he needs to be effective. It also isn't going to help with the one glaring flaw he's faced throughout his career - his tendency to give up the long ball. Even at Baker's best in 2011, he still allowed a bomb per nine innings, and those worse years before weren't exactly in hitter friendly parks either.
Baker was once a consistent 2.5-3.5 win (fWAR) pitcher with Minnesota, culminating in 2.8 wins in 2011 - a pace that would have put him at 4 wins had he not been limited to 134.2 innings. Even though that may seem like a distant memory, Baker's potential to bounce back is an investment worth making. He's 32 and recovering from Tommy John surgery, but he's also only thrown less than a thousand major league innings. At this point, if he isn't fully healthy, he probably won't ever be. Throw it on the rotation pile and hope he sticks, because if he does, the Mariners just added a couple wins on the cheap.