April 12, 2012

Scott Baker to undergo elbow surgery, likely ending his Twins career

As if their 1-4 start wasn't bad enough the Twins announced yesterday that Scott Baker will undergo season-ending surgery to repair the flexor pronator tendon in his right elbow. Baker has battled elbow problems since 2010, needing two disabled list stints last season and beginning this year back on the shelf, yet last week the Twins gave him an MRI exam and Terry Ryan called the results "very similar to what it showed last July" and "good news."

Baker sought a second opinion from Dr. David Altchek, who performed Tommy John surgery on Joe Nathan in 2010 and Kyle Gibson last year, and he recommended that Baker go under the knife as well. While the recovery timetable for Baker is six months, as opposed to 12-18 months for Tommy John surgery, he'll miss the entire season and may have pitched his final game for the Twins given that they'll surely decline his $9.25 million option for 2013.

It's remarkable that Baker pitched as well as he did last season, posting a 3.14 ERA and 123-to-32 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 135 innings, but unfortunately pitching well between DL trips is the story of his career. Only nine pitchers in Twins history have made more starts with a better adjusted ERA+ than Baker and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is the second-best in team history behind only Johan Santana, but 2007 is his lone season with more than 175 innings.

Baker was typically one of the Twins' two best starters when healthy and his 150-175 innings were often more valuable than 180-200 innings from a lesser pitcher, but between the DL stints and tendency to serve up some monster homers as an extreme fly-ball pitcher he never seemed to gain much traction as a fan favorite. None of that matters now, of course, but in remembering a Twins career that's ending too soon it adds another unfortunate layer.

Baker is 30 years old, so if the surgery can fix the elbow problem that has plagued him for three seasons he'll have plenty of opportunity to reestablish himself as a solid mid-rotation starter in 2013 and beyond. It's just hard to imagine it being in Minnesota, in part because there's no way to justify paying him $9.25 million and in part because both sides seem likely to be in favor of moving on nine years after he was a second-round pick out of Oklahoma State.

Even a somewhat healthy Baker would have been able to fetch a decent prospect or two at the trade deadline, but that's obviously a moot point now and his surgery opens the door for Liam Hendriks to stick in the Twins' rotation instead of merely being a short-term fill-in. Hendriks was supposed to start the third game of the season in place of Baker, but instead was hospitalized for food poisoning and is now slated to make his 2012 debut Sunday.

Hendriks ideally could use a half-season at Triple-A, where he made just nine mediocre starts before being promoted to the majors at age 22 last year, but with Gibson recovering from Tommy John surgery he's the organization's top pitching prospect by default and the Twins don't have a ton of other options. They could turn to Anthony Swarzak once he's no longer needed to fill-in for Jason Marquis, but taking a longer look at Hendriks seems to be the plan.

Baker, Marquis, Carl Pavano, and Francisco Liriano will all be free agents after the season, so right now the 2013 rotation is Hendriks, Nick Blackburn, and three vacancies. That's not encouraging, although not much is with the Twins these days, and hopefully Baker's injury speeding up Hendriks' timetable won't hurt his development. Because if Hendriks develops as hoped and stays healthy his long-term upside is basically a more durable version of Baker.

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  • Ben

    Glad to see the “top notch” (read incompetent) Twins medical staff misdiagnosed an injury for nearly year. Just last week Terry Ryan was saying this was a mental issue with Baker. Seriously! Things need to change, and firing Bill Smith was not enough.

  • SteveV

    Whoa, whoa, whoa! Who said anything was “misdiagnosed”? This is at best a grey area in terms of whether surgery is required or will even be helpful. Baker has chosen the surgery route after the first opinion was not to do surgery.

    He has millions of reasons to take that option. Hope it goes well for him, and we will see if it actually helps him return to form.

    Steve V

  • neil

    Man, what a downer. I have complained about Baker many times over his Twins career, but I’m really going to miss him in the rotation.

    Good luck in the second half of your career, Scott, and may it be free of the elbow problems that marred the first half.

  • Anthony Schlagel

    Very little to root for it now but as always I hang on hoping for unsuspected brilliance, but sooner rather than later it will dawn on me that the Twins are a total mess, so many players are adequate only and this does not build a contender let alone a champion. Baker was our best pitcher, no? Who knows. They say that’s why they play the games.

  • Greg

    Baker, Slowey, Nathan, Neshek, Liriano — I’m sure I’m forgetting a few names, but the pattern is there. We’re not going to take the greatest care of you, and when you do get hurt the first option will be to send you to Gardy’s doghouse.

    When does this begin to affect the Twins’ ability to sign free-agents, specifically pitchers? Or has that happened already?

  • AM.

    Why is it a given that they won’t pick up the option? They’ve paid Pavano 8 or 8.5 these past two years.

  • wrong em

    Coming straight off the surgery presents too big a risk for the team to pay $9M. However, Baker’s not going to get that much on the market either, and I’m not sure why both he and the Twins would necessarily want to move on. Maybe Baker would more than the Twins, but I’d bet the team would be glad to give him a make-good contract for about half of what his option was worth.

  • baker fan

    Never a fan favorite? He was mine… this is a big loss.

  • Kirk

    Yeah, there is certainly no reason for them to pick up his option, but I must be missing something, because I don’t see why they both seem to want to walk away from each other. I don’t see the Twins wanting to walk away if he’s willing to take half that $9million. I guess I see that Baker would want to maximize his earning potential, but coming off many injury laden seasons, I don’t know if many teams will necessarily jump at the chance. Probably a team hoping trying to make good on an incentive heavy contract because they have so many spots in the rotation open. A team like Oakland or….the Twins?

  • Dave T

    The Twins have to decline the option in order to negotiate a lower price with Baker. Baker would be a free agent at that point, and could negotiate with anyone.

  • Pedro Munoz

    How many times do we have to go through this? Is there a worse medical staff in all of professional sports?

    The diagnosis for a long time, including the last few weeks, was that Baker’s arm problems did not require surgery. That diagnosis was wrong. Thus, misdiagnosis.

    I understand the idea of people wanting to hold off on surgery and trying more conservative care, but when a player is being paid millions of dollars and the team is depending on them, the rules are different. Since the Twins own doctors can find their asses with both hands and a stethescope, why don’t we just send guys to Altchek right away?

  • Scott

    Man, it seems like our fortunes have done a 180 in the last year. Seemed (at least to me anyway) the Twins looked loaded around this time last year, now it looks like we’re headed for multiple miserable seasons…

  • AM.

    Read LEN this morning…he agrees it isn’t a given the option is declined, noting they likely get a few million of insurance money for this year. Again,Twins are paying $8.5mm this year; $9mm for Baker next year (with trade value or draft picks available as compensation) seems to be a very viable option to me, even if returning from this surgery is a risk.