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Cubs’ Baker expects to start season on time after signing contract

(MCT) — The ink was barely dry on Scott Baker’s one-year contract Tuesday before speculation over his trade value began in earnest.

Though the Cubs signed the rehabbing Twins pitcher for $5.5 million, adding another $1.5 million in incentives, the real question was whether he would wind up as another Theo Epstein flip at the trade deadline.

The 31-year-old Baker called the idea “kind of a far stretch,” while Epstein nixed the idea, even talking about a possible extension down the road.

“First of all, we hope our season goes better than that and we’re not in that position,” Epstein said. “We’re realistic. If we’re out of it, we’re trying to build a healthy organization (and) we are going to flip some players. But we don’t necessarily flip them all. If you have somebody who’s a good fit on and off the field, you can look to extend them.”

Nevertheless, the “foundation for sustained success” blueprint that saw Paul Maholm signed, sealed and ultimately delivered to a contender for prospects after a seven-month stay with the Cubs suggests Baker probably will be showcasing himself for another team.

Either way, Epstein kicked off his second offseason as Cubs’ president with a small but potentially significant move, similar to last year when outfielder David DeJesus became the first signing of the new order.

Baker expects to be able to start the season on time after undergoing elbow reconstruction surgery last April. He missed the 2012 season, but is anxious to write a new chapter.

“I’ve kind of taken ownership of this rehab process,” Baker said. “Not just basically ‘Tell me what to do and I’ll do it.’ I want to know why (I’m doing it) and really want this to work out. It hasn’t been as bad as I thought it’d be. Obviously sitting out all last year was extremely tough. But in saying that, I think you learn a lot about yourself.”

Baker went 8-6 with a 3.14 ERA in 23 starts for the Twins in 2011. He’s 63-48 over his seven-year career with them with a 4.15 ERA.

“In my opinion (Baker is) an underrated pitcher and someone who has a consistent track record of success,” Epstein said.

The rotation now consists of Baker, Jeff Samardzija, Matt Garza and Travis Wood, with one spot to fill. Garza, a teammate of Baker’s in Minnesota, is scheduled to get a scan on his elbow this week.

The Cubs tried to acquire right-hander Dan Haren from the A’s for Carlos Marmol, but pulled the deal off the table after it was all but complete. The top pitchers on the market are probably out of the Cubs’ price range, so a similar one- or two-year signing seems likely.

“The reality is it’s not exactly a buyers’ market out there for pitching,” Epstein said. “So you have to take your risks. ... We’re very comfortable placing our bet on Scott Baker.”

Baker could be held off until April 10 to give him more time to mend, thanks to an early off day. He didn’t throw for the Cubs, but no one seems concerned about any possible setbacks. Epstein said he should be stretched out to five or six innings by the first week of the season.

“But we’re going to use good judgment every step of the way,” he said. “It’s not as important whether it’s Opening Day or 10 days into the season as it is that he comes back healthy.”

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