After a long hiatus, Scott Baker returned to a Grapefruit League mound today. The result was not pretty.
Baker surrendered seven runs to the Rays, and he was unable to make it out of the third inning. Four of the seven runs came on a grand slam by Ben Zobrist, and another one came on an Elliot Johnson blast. When Baker allows multiple homers, it’s always scary, because earlier in his career he had such a problem with the longball that a local sports columnist dubbed him Scott “Home Run” Baker.
It’s also scary because Baker was supposed to be one of the rocks upon which the starting rotation would rest. Francisco Liriano is talented but erratic, Carl Pavano is dependable but unexciting, and Nick Blackburn and Jason Marquis are back-of-the-rotation innings eaters. Baker has been a 15 game winner in his career, and he managed to keep his ERA under 3.00 for a good chunk of last season. At age 30, he is a veteran hurler who can go deep into a game and strike some batters out when needed.
But he cannot strike them out with an 87 mph fastball, and thanks to his limited activity so far, that’s exactly what he was throwing today. Elbow problems have scratched several of his starts, and he is definitely behind the rest of the team. Liriano and Pavano have started five games apiece, and both have pitched through the fifth inning in their latest efforts, which puts them on track to be able to throw into the late innings when the season starts. Baker, by contrast, doesn’t seem like he’ll be ready for a 100 pitch effort any time soon.
The tone of this article seems negative so far, so let’s get one thing straight: Scott Baker is a good pitcher. He has his ups and downs, but usually he falls somewhere between Decent Number Three Starter and One of the Top Ten Pitchers in the AL. The point of this discussion is not to disparage his talent, but rather to point out that he is obviously not at 100% right now. And Baker at less than 100% is not an asset to the Twins.
Thus, it is becoming increasingly likely that Baker will have to miss some time. There are two possible explanations for today’s shelling: either the Rays’ hitters (who have had a couple more weeks of game time than Baker) were just better prepared, or Baker is actually dealing with arm problems that hurt his command or control. Either way, it makes sense to put him on the DL to start the season. If there isn’t an actual injury, no problem. Call it “bilateral elbow weakness” and let him make two or three rehab starts for the Red Wings.
This formula worked in 2009. Baker was hurt in the spring, and he was unable to join the team, but he ended up winning 15 games and being the team’s most reliable pitcher down the stretch. If anything, the Twins should have been more careful with him back then – he got off to a terrible 2-6 start. This year, the Twins should give him all the time he needs to get ready. Liam Hendriks can take his place until Baker is back on his feet (or arm, as it were).
Of course, Hendriks had a bad outing today as well, but let’s not get into that.