Missed Opportunity? Scott Baker Signs With the Cubs


Stating the obvious right off the bat, the Kansas City Royals need starting pitching. I’ll follow that up with another not-exactly-bold statement. Dayton Moore doesn’t have a ton of payroll flexibility to acquire the quality arms he needs for his rotation on the open market.

Baker is heading to the Windy City at a bargain price. (Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE)

Look, we’re Royals fans, we understand the realities of being a small market. We understand that our dreams centered around the triumphant return of Zack Greinke or the hero’s welcome that Anibal Sanchez would undoubtedly receive, will assuredly remain dreams and nothing more. According to some sources, Greinke is looking for a 6-year, $150 million contract and chances are he’s going to get – or at least approach – that amount. Sanchez should be a bit more “affordable” with a 6-year, $90 million contract baseline floating out there.

In a vacuum, the Royals could afford the latter but his late season performance aside, that would be wildly overpaying for someone of Anibal Sanchez’s caliber. We also have to accept that if he wants 6 for 90 in a deal and the Royals are the ones that step forward to give it to him, someone else will likely jump in and offer him a little more. So in essence Kansas City would have to overpay on top of overpaying and that’s not the way to build a rotation, regardless of a team’s financial resources (short of unlimited cash of course).

So here we sit today with Ervin Santana on board at $12 million (the Angels are paying the other $1 million) for the 2013 season. Aside from the cash involved the only other cost was Brandon Sisk, a long in the tooth middle reliever who will likely have some sort of major league career but won’t be missed by the Royals given their major and minor league depth.

As many other writers have observed, Santana is a gamble but one with the chance to pay off. I’m fine with the trade, but I fear the acquisition may have blinded Dayton and company to other gambles that are, or in this case were, on the open market.

One of those bargains that has found a new team is former Twins starter Scott Baker who signed a one year, $5.5 million contract with the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday. The deal includes $1.5 million in incentives that could push the total value to $7 million. Despite the fact that Baker missed the entire 2012 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, I expected the 31-year old right-hander to generate more interest on the open market and I expected him to land at least a two-year deal.

He didn’t, and I can’t help but wonder where the Royals were on this one.

Having pitched in the AL Central as a member of the Twins for his entire major league career, Royals fans are, or should be at least aware of Baker, but may not appreciate his ability or his track record. That’s understandable as I’ve always regarded him as one of the more underrated starters in baseball for quite some time and he always seems to fly under the radar nationally.

In 958.0 innings with the Twins, Baker has put together a 4.15 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 2.1 BB/9 and 7.3 SO/9. His career 3.84 SO/BB is outstanding and has been well above 3.0 every season since his rookie year in 2003. He is statistically superior to recent acquisition Ervin Santana in nearly every measurable category (H/9 being one exception) and has been far more consistent throughout his career. Taking defense out of the equation using FIP, Baker has a nearly half run advantage (3.95 to 4.43) over Santana and their Wins Above Replacement (WAR) are nearly identical – 17.0 for Baker and 17.3 for Santana. Of course when you factor in that Santana has an extra year and 500 innings of experience on his resume, WAR clearly indicates that Baker is a superior pitcher. He has better control, more strikeouts, more consistency and a better feel and understanding for the art of pitching.

It’s also worth noting that when Baker went down in 2011, he was having the best season of his career with a 3.14 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 123-32 SO-to-BB (3.84) in 134.2 innings pitched. Santana, as we all know, is coming off the second worst season of his career. Using ERA+ to put things into relation to his peers, his 2012 performance edges past his 2007 clunker as his worst.

The one drawback to signing Scott Baker is his health. He should be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, but it takes a while for guys to make it all the way back from the injury, surgery and rehab when it comes to the results they generate on the field. In addition to the recent elbow injury Baker has battled minor injuries along the way. To his credit, he’s typically pitched through them and adding in his minor league starts as he was establishing himself in the majors (2005-2007) he made a total of 178 from 2005-2010 for an average of 29.7 starts per season. That’s not far off of the 30.4 starts per season that Santana has made since 2005.

My point here is not to suggest that the Royals were wrong to acquire Ervin Santana. The point is that if you are in on, and willing to make a move to acquire Santana, you have to be in play on a guy like Scott Baker who is a better pitcher and a similar gamble (though for very different reasons). We all know the team needs to add more than just Santana and the circumstances were certainly there for Dayton Moore to make this happen.

Furthermore, while the Royals may have to pay an additional premium to land some free agents, Baker wound up signing with Chicago. There’s a case to be made that Kansas City would actually be a better destination for a player in Baker’s shoes. His ties to the AL Central and the Midwest – he pitched for Oklahoma State in college – could have worked in his favor, as would the Royals vastly superior defense and more friendly ballpark when it comes to keeping the ball in the park.

Never once did I hear the Royals linked to Baker with either serious or simply passing interest. I find that entirely puzzling and frustrating given their needs. He’s an upper echelon #3 starter when healthy and in his best years a low-end #2. Essentially he’s the type of pitcher we’re all hoping Jake Odorizzi can develop into if he reaches his ceiling, and for some reason the Royals never seemed all that interested.

At $5.5-$7 million, Scott Baker is an absolute bargain in today’s market, and I fear Kansas City completely missed the boat on him. Maybe Baker didn’t want to pitch against the Twins? Yeah, I’ll just keep telling myself that …