Eyes are on Baker to fill spot in rotation

Staff writerFebruary 16, 2014 

PEORIA, Ariz. — How a pitcher looks in a bullpen throwing session in the early days of spring camp generally means little.

“I try not to watch sidelines too much,” Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said, offering his own slang for such workouts. “I’ve been in the game a long time, and people get excited about sidelines.

“It’s important to see that the ball is coming out free and easy. Other than that, I don’t put too much (emphasis) on sidelines.”

And yet, there stood McClendon at the edge of the bullpen mounds Saturday in the southwest corner of the Peoria Sports Complex.

Fourteen pitchers threw from those mounds in the morning workout, but much of the attention focused on veteran right-hander Scott Baker, who is in camp as a nonroster invitee after signing a minor league contract.

No surprise there.

Baker, 32, might be the biggest wild card in camp. He is almost two years removed from Tommy John surgery, which is to say almost two years removed from being the front man on the Minnesota Twins’ staff.

“Our medical information was good,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “His reports were good. This guy has a really good history when he’s right. He hasn’t been right the last couple of years.”

Baker says he feels “right” now.

“You always hear that two-year mark is the date when you start to feel like your old self,” he said. “You always want to be the guy who supersedes that, but there’s a reason that people say two years.

“It’s because the majority of guys do work hard to get back to pre-surgery form. I kind of feel like I’m at that point.

“I feel like my old self, which I guess is what everybody wants.”

It’s what the Mariners want from Baker, who was 46-28 with a 3.92 earned-run average over 113 games with Minnesota in the four years before his surgery.

The best-case scenario is that Baker slots into the middle of the Mariners’ rotation — behind All-Stars Felix Hernandez and currently ailing Hisashi Iwakuma — as a bridge to prospects such as Taijuan Walker and James Paxton.

That opportunity is part of what prompted Baker to accept a minor league offer, although the deal sweetens to a $1 million guarantee if he makes the big league club and includes performance bonuses that could add another $3.5 million.

“It was appealing for several reasons,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a lot going on here. At this point in my career, I definitely want to be at a place that I feel has a chance to make the playoffs. There’s no doubt about that.

“And, selfishly, there’s the situation. I feel there’s a good opportunity to make the team and be in that rotation. I think a healthy version of me fits quite nicely in this rotation.”

OK, the first part: Playoffs?

The Mariners were 71-91 last season and finished 25 games out of first place in the American League West.

“This team definitely got better from last year,” Baker said. “There’s no doubt about it. But it’s hard not to say that about every team in the division.

“I guess we’ll just have to see how it plays out.

“If this team can get off to a good start, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be there in the end.”

Say this much: Baker has some idea of what it takes; the Twins reached the postseason in three of his seven years.

“I feel there’s a good mixture here of veterans and good young talent,” Baker said. “I really feel you need that when it comes time later in the season (to make a postseason push).”

A Baker returned to his pre-surgery form would aid any such push.

He points to three September starts last season for the Chicago Cubs, with whom he signed after leaving the Twins, as an important preliminary step.

“I was happy to finish the season healthy last year,” Baker said. “That was important for me. It took a lot longer than I anticipated, but the Cubs were really good to me. They didn’t have to give me those starts in September.”

Baker gave up six runs and nine hits in 15 innings.

“That probably helped me more mentally than anything,” he said. “I was able to go into the offseason knowing I’d pitched in a major league game, did well and got through it. That was huge for me.”

And — just maybe — it could be huge for the Mariners.

“The feel (on my pitches), I feel like, is back to where it was,” Baker said. “Not that you can’t be a serviceable pitcher before that feel comes all of the way back. But it definitely feels good coming out of my hand.”

At this point, that’s all McClendon — and the Mariners — want to see.

bob.dutton@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @TNT_Mariners

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