By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
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,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said in 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 last 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 non-roster invite after signing a minor-league contract.
No surprise there.
Baker, at 32, might be the biggest wildcard in camp. He is nearly two years removed from Tommy John surgery on his elbow, which is to say nearly 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 exactly what the Mariners want from Baker, who was 46-28 with a 3.92 ERA over 113 games at Minnesota in the four years preceding his surgery.
The best-case scenario is Baker slots into the middle of the Mariners’ rotation — behind All-Stars Felix Hernandez and a 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 … first part: Playoffs? The Mariners were 71-91 a year ago and finished 25 games out of first place in the American League West Division.
“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 postseason in three of his seven years.
“I feel there’s a good mixture here of veterans and good young talent,” he 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, where he signed after leaving the Twins, as an important preliminary step.
“I was happy to finish the season healthy last year,” he 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 off-season 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 (the ball) definitely feels good coming out of my hand.”
At this point, that’s all McClendon, and the Mariners, want to see.