Ex-Cub Jeff Baker saw writing on the wall early last season
BY GORDON WITTENMYER email@example.com April 18, 2013 10:02PM
Cubs batter Jeff Baker doubles in two runs in the seventh inning of the Miami Marlins-Chicago Cubs game Wednesday July 18, 2012 at Wrigley Field in Chicago. | Tom Cruze~Sun-TimesCubs batter Jeff Baker doubles in two runs in the seventh inning of the Miami Marlins-Chicago Cubs game Wednesday July 18, 2012 at Wrigley Field in Chicago. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Updated: April 19, 2013 12:41PM
It might have been the highlight of the 2012 season for the Cubs, the day the players dressed in superhero costumes for getaway day in St. Louis. Reed Johnson and Jeff Baker emerged from the clubhouse in polo shirts, khakis and sunglasses. They had team-official credentials around their necks and cellphones pressed to their ears.
The dynamic duo of Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein.
A week later, both were traded.
So when Johnson got hit in the back by a pitch in Atlanta the first time he faced the Cubs this season, he texted Baker right away:
“Dude, the first at-bat I got hit.”
Baker, now with the Texas Rangers, responded by texting a photo of their Jed-Theo impersonation back to him with the message: “Shouldn’t have dressed up, dude.”
They’ve all been laughing about it since that day in July, general manager Hoyer and team president Epstein included.
But behind all the laughing is the serious side of baseball. Specifically, the “writing on the wall” Baker said he and other Cubs veterans saw about this time last year.
That same writing already is on the wall. Unless something changes dramatically and suddenly with the team’s hitting, fielding and relief pitching, it will stay there.
It was a theme in the clubhouse throughout spring training: Start strong and force the front office to rethink its flip-the-veterans part of the rebuilding process that blew up the roster last July and led to the tailspin to 101 losses.
Even this week, manager Dale Sveum called April “the most important month of the season.”
If you don’t believe the urgency is being felt during a 5-9 start, just ask Baker, Johnson and any of the other Cubs who lived the same reality a year ago.
“You think about it a little bit here and there. Being a player, you think about those circumstances,” said Rangers catcher Geovany Soto, the National League Rookie of the Year in 2008 for the Cubs. “But it’s something you can’t control.”
Unless you win big enough early enough to forestall the otherwise inevitable summer sell-off.
Nobody has been more clear about their intentions than Epstein and Hoyer regarding the short-term free agents they’ve signed or the veterans they’ve inherited.
Trade rumors started by May a year ago, with substantive talks not far behind. They eventually led to the trades of Johnson (Braves), Paul Maholm (Braves), Baker (Detroit Tigers), Soto (Rangers) and Ryan Dempster (Rangers).
Matt Garza was all but gone until an injury the final week before the trade deadline. And the Cubs were discussing the framework of a deal to send Alfonso Soriano to the San Francisco Giants before he used his no-trade rights to shut talks down.
“Realistically, you have an idea what could be coming. It’s a business,” said Baker, who, along with Johnson, looked briefly into the possibility of returning to the Cubs as free agents.
One factor that kept it from happening: Nobody wants to sign with a team knowing you probably will get traded at the deadline.
“It was a situation where I told [my agent] if I could, I’d like to try to avoid getting in that situation again where there’s a good chance if they start rebuilding, you’re gone,” Baker said.
It didn’t stop Johnson from wanting to roll the dice. It’s the risk he, Baker, Maholm and Soto all say is worth taking for the opportunity to play in Chicago with the chance — however slim it might look — to be on the Cubs team that wins it all.
Meanwhile, you try to keep your head down when you know the for-sale signs could be going up.
“I knew it could happen, obviously,” said Maholm, who signed a one-year deal with an option that the Braves picked up this year. “In my mind, if I pitched well enough, I’d be back again the following year.”
Because the team didn’t perform as well as he did, he became even more likely to be traded.
“It’s the brutally honest part of the business side of it,” said Baker, who lauds the track records and ambitions of Epstein and Co. “That’s what you have to do to make the organization better. And as players, especially veteran players, you understand that.
“You’re not necessarily going to like it, but you definitely understand it.”