Scott Baker | File photo
MESA, Ariz. — With the news Tuesday that right-hander Scott Baker has been shut down indefinitely after a setback with his elbow, the starting pitching depth the Cubs built over the winter is gone until at least May.
Baker, who missed all of last season after Tommy John surgery, was expected to open the season in mid-April until he experienced soreness after his first Cactus League start Sunday. An MRI exam Monday showed enough potential problems to prompt a consultation with team doctor Stephen Gryzlo this weekend. The Cubs say they will have no timetable for Baker’s return until then.
“That’s why you build up depth in the first place,” team president Theo Epstein said. “If we didn’t have the numbers that we had coming into camp, we’d be in dire straits right now.”
With Matt Garza (lat strain) not due back until maybe the first week of May, Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva were plugged into an opening rotation that also includes Jeff Samardzija, Edwin Jackson and Scott Feldman.
“You could always use more,” Epstein said, “but we feel good about the five guys we have taking the ball in April, and we’ll see where we go from there.”
Until then, left-hander Chris Rusin, who pitched five innings against the Texas Rangers on Tuesday, is considered the Cubs’ sixth starter among the healthy ones.
Epstein said the Cubs will look at options outside the organization.
“But we hope the five guys we have can stay healthy until the other two get back,” he said.
Baker, who signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal last fall despite the uncertainty of his health, experienced no issues with the elbow since surgery April 17 until Sunday.
“As the day progressed, it started to stiffen up a little bit, and the next morning I was fairly sore,” said a visibly disappointed Baker, who gave up three runs, two walks and three hits, including a homer, in one-third of an inning Sunday. “We’re just kind of in a holding pattern right now until Dr. Gryzlo gets here.”
Baker is just one of three pitchers coming off Tommy John surgery the Cubs have acquired in the last eight months with the expectation they would contribute this season (also Arodys Vizcaino, acquired in a trade with the Atlanta Braves, and Rule 5 draft pick Hector Rondon).
The Cubs don’t view Baker’s setback as an indictment of the risk-reward thinking behind those value acquisitions. In the new regime’s first winter, the club signed Paul Maholm to a one-year deal after he had a shoulder injury, and the left-hander won 13 games with a 3.67 ERA in 31 starts. He made 20 of those starts for the Cubs before being traded for Vizcaino.
“Everyone comes back on their own timetable, and 95 percent of those guys make it back to their previous established level of performance,” Epstein said. “That doesn’t mean it’s always smooth getting there. It doesn’t mean everyone gets there.
“But we know this: Scott has worked as hard as he possibly could. Some things are beyond the pitcher’s control, beyond the doctor’s control. You just have to see what happens, but we know he’s going to continue to work hard. If he’s able to come back, he will.”
Baker, a 15-game winner in 2009, has been told by pitchers who have had the surgery that setbacks often are part of the recovery.
“Is there ever a good time for a setback? Absolutely not,” he said. “But it is pretty common. At the same time, it’s not fun. Right now, I’m choosing to be optimistic and hope for the best.”