Last week, the Padres traded Mat Latos to the Reds. A couple days ago, Gio Gonzalez went to the Nationals. In both cases, teams were willing to part with four talented players for a pitcher who is very good, but certainly not elite. I couldn’t help but think that in a market like this, the Twins might want to shop Scott Baker (By the way, if you hate bad puns, you owe me one for not trying to cram the words “Baker” and “Hot Stove” into the title of this article).
If you haven’t been following the news, Latos was traded for Edenson Volquez, Yasmani Grandal, Yonder Alonso, and Brad Boxberger. Volquez is a veteran starter, but the others are promising young players who instantly vault the value of the Padres’ minor league organization. Gonzalez topped the Latos deal by being dealt for Brad Peacock, Tom Milone, Derek Norris, and A.J. Cole. If the Twins want to build up their farm system by trading a pitcher, this would seem like a good time.
Why trade Baker instead of, say, Carl Pavano or Francisco Liriano? The answer is simple: Baker would be worth a lot more in a trade. Liriano is coming off an awful season with an ERA over 5.00, the lowest strikeout rate of his career (7.5 K/9), and way too many walks. Pavano was very reliable in 2011, but he is a mid rotation innings-eater at best. Also, Liriano and Pavano each have just one more year under contract before hitting the free agent market. Part of the reason the return on the Johan Santana deal was so weak is that Santana was only a year from free agency at the time. Baker’s contract has an option year for 2013, so he’d provide value to a trading team for more than just a one year playoff run. If the Twins tank again in 2012, I fully expect Liriano and Pavano to be on the market in the summer. But right now it makes more sense to trade Baker than either of the others.
Before Baker went down with arm problems, he was having by far the best season of his career. He struck out 123 batters, good for a rate of 8.2 per nine innings, and his ERA was a nifty 3.14. Teams might balk at his health problems, but the Twins could point out that Baker exceeded 170 innings in each of the three seasons before 2011. He wasn’t exactly a bastion of durability, but he’s not a wimp, either. Most contending teams with intelligent GMs would give Baker a long look.
Given Baker’s talent, decent stats, and remaining contract years, he would make a pretty nice commodity on the trade market this year. Factor in the very weak free agent market, and I am convinced there’d be a team willing to overpay for him. I don’t think that he’d fetch quite the same kind of price that Latos or Gonzalez did, but it’s not out of the question to think the Twins could get two or three decent prospects in return. Perhaps a toolsy middle infield prospect and a AA starting pitcher with upside? I have been accused of overvaluing Twins players in the past, but I don’t think that’s too much to expect.
So far, the Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Yankees have all failed to add a significant starting pitcher. All three of those AL East contenders could be potential suitors for Baker.
Trading away a veteran for a plethora of prospects is what Twins GM Terry Ryan does best. Baker could be the next Chuck Knoblauch or A.J. Pierzynski by helping the team with his departure (note: I certainly don’t mean to imply that Baker is a jerk like Pierzynski or a cheater/criminal like Knoblauch). I don’t know if I like all of Ryan’s free agent signings, but I have the utmost confidence in him when it comes to the trade market.
Such a trade would not be without a downside, of course. Dealing Baker would be a symbolic white flag, a message to fans that the Twins are more interested in building for 2013 and beyond than they are in contending in 2012. In theory, this could inhibit ticket sales and dampen some of the enthusiasm that the team created when it reappointed Ryan as GM. If the Twins have any realistic hope of being competitive next year, they should keep Baker. He would be the centerpiece of their pitching staff.
In conclusion, I am not saying the Twins definitely should try to trade Baker, but it seems like it would be worth looking into. Terry Ryan should place a few discreet phone calls to some of the teams that have missed out on free agent starters and see what they’re willing to offer. If someone makes an offer anywhere close to the Latos or Gonzalez packages, Baker’s legacy could be the next Twins dynasty.