Stop the presses! Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have signed a good player with durability questions to a one year contract. This time, their reclamation project is Scott Baker, who underwent Tommy John surgery last April and missed the entire 2012 season. To secure his services, the Cubs gave him $5.5 million guaranteed, with an additional $1.5 million in performance bonuses based on how many innings he throws.
When healthy enough to pitch, Baker has been an above average starter for the Twins, posting a career ERA-/FIP-/xFIP- of 97/93/94 in just under 1,000 innings. He’s an extreme fly ball pitcher, but he limits walks and racks up strikeouts by pitching up in the zone, so the trade-off works pretty well in preventing runs.
The question, of course, is how much quantity he’ll be able to provide. He’ll be less than a year out from surgery on Opening Day, and if he has any setbacks in his rehab, there’s a pretty decent chance he’ll have to start the season on the DL. If the Cubs want to play it safe and give him some time to build up his endurance in the minors, he might not pitch for Chicago until May or June. Projecting more than 100 to 150 innings from Baker in 2013 is probably too optimistic, so this deal likely buys the Cubs a pitcher for about half of next season.
But, just like with Paul Maholm last winter, this is exactly the kind of guy that the Cubs should be filling out their rotation with. Decent, young-ish starter with upside and no long term commitment who can provide solid results and potentially serve as a nice trade chip at the deadline. Or, if things go really well, they get a leg up on re-signing him before he hits the market again next winter.
For a rebuilding team, this is how Major League payroll should be used. Use available jobs and cash to sign guys who can offer some upside without locking yourself into any long term risk, and position the roster to offer the fans a decent product without giving up any of the long term assets that the team is building around. The cost isn’t so low that it would have made sense for every team to do this deal, but for a club like the Cubs, this is exactly the kind of move that makes sense.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.