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Cubs' Baker sets his sights on showcasing his recovery

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Cubs' Baker sets his sights on showcasing his recovery

While the rest of the city is anxiously awaiting Derrick Rose's return to the hardwood, one new Chicagoan is just focusing on his own comeback.

The Cubs signed Scott Baker this winter to help build up the stable of starting pitching options, but the 31-year-old is just nine months removed from Tommy John surgery.

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With spring camp just around the corner, Baker has advanced in his rehab and started mound progression a few weeks ago. He has his sights set on being ready for the start of spring training, but is more focused on Opening Day.

"Hopefully I'll be able to jump in and go as all the other guys are going," Baker said at the 2013 Cubs Convention last weekend. "I don't know if the team will allow me to do that, but that's what I'm planning on doing.

"You can only go as fast as the protocol will let you. I have it mapped out to where I would be ready for spring training and the season. But obviously the start of the season is more important than spring training.

"As long as I feel good and I feel like I'm able to progress and don't have any setbacks, the plan is for me to be ready for the start of the season."

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Baker missed all of the 2012 season after surgery in April, which was a major change of pace for a guy used to taking the ball every fifth day.

Just as Rose is admitting his injury has helped him become a more cerebral player and build strength in areas he had ignored before, Baker sees the silver lining in his year off.

"I tried to utilize the time and not just go through the motions," he said. "You don't try to reinvent yourself, but you definitely try to get back to the basics and get back to the things that you know helped you be successful at the beginning.

"In saying that, you really focus on the mechanics and try to do things that are very easy to get away from over a career. You don't feel like you waste time doing that.

"Obviously, you have to put in the reps, do the strength training program, the throwing program and all that. You are more of a complete pitcher when you're finally through the rehab process."

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Tommy John surgery has become so commonplace in baseball today that it is no longer the death sentence it was once considered to a player's career. Players are rebounding faster (the typical recovery time sits around nine months) and coming back stronger than ever.

"I tell you what, it's kind of exciting to -- I don't want to say have a new arm, but -- have a tune-up and have the knowledge that I have knowing how to pitch," Baker said. "I know things are taken care of. I just have to concentrate on pitching. It just really makes you feel good and makes you feel ready for the season.

"We'll have to see. This is all good in theory, but when you get out there, it's a whole different ballgame. I'm doing the best I can with what I have. As long as I don't have any setbacks, I think it's going to be a lot of fun."

Baker was selected by the Minnesota Twins in the second round of the 2003 draft and has never known another organization. All 159 starts and seven seasons (eight if you include last year) of his big-league career have come in Minnesota.

But after signing a one-year deal worth 5.5 million -- plus another 1.5 million in incentives -- in Chicago, he's happy to be getting a chance with the big-market Cubs.

"I don't think there's any secret that the Chicago Cubs organization is really trying to do something special here with bringing in the great front office," Baker said. "There's a vision and everybody's buying into it, which is awesome. The Cubs organization is historical. There's only three or four organizations that have the same historical pedigree the Cubs do. It's just really cool. It's going to be a lot of fun.

"Everybody grew up watching the Cubs on WGN. That was the great thing about it -- being able to catch a ballgame after school. I'm excited that people back home are going to see the same thing. It's a great city for families. My wife likes it here, so it's a win-win situation."

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The Shreveport, La., native said he would be open to sticking around Chicago if he fit in the franchise's long-term plans. As for this year, Baker is just glad to have an opportunity to showcase his recovery.

The Cubs' dearth of starting pitching was exposed last season after Matt Garza went down with an injury and Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm were traded. Cubs brass set out to rectify that during this offseason, adding Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva in addition to Baker.

Garza is on the fast track back from a stress reaction in his elbow and Jeff Samardzija will no longer be on an innings limit. And then there's Travis Wood, who put up a solid 4.27 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 26 starts for the Cubs last season.

There simply won't be enough starts to go around and if all seven guys start the season healthy, somebody will have to be relegated to the bullpen.

Baker -- who owns a career 63-48 record with a 4.15 ERA and 1.26 WHIP -- isn't focusing on that, however. He's just trying to keep a handle on what he can control.

"The starting pitching depth is nice for the team and the organization. But as for me, I'm going to try to get ready as fast as my body and my arm will allow," Baker said. "That's just me being me.

"I'm going to go out there and do the best I can, regardless of the situation, regardless of how many guys are slated for the rotation. For me, all I can focus on is to get ready and to progress."

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

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USA TODAY

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

The Cubs now apparently believe they are a stronger organization without Chris Bosio, firing a pitching coach known for his strong convictions, brutal honesty and bottom-line results in a move that doesn’t seem like an actual solution.

Hiring Jim Hickey – who has a good reputation from his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, a close friendship with Joe Maddon and what looks like a slam-dunk interview lined up for Monday – might make the manager feel more comfortable and less isolated.

But the new-voice/different-direction spin doesn’t fundamentally address the pitching issues facing a team that needs to replace 40 percent of the rotation and find an established closer and has zero expectations those answers will come from within the farm system.

This is an operation that won a seven-game World Series last year without a homegrown player throwing a single pitch.     

If the Cubs can say thanks for the memories and dump “Boz,” what about “Schwarbs?”

Advancing to the National League Championship Series in three straight seasons doesn’t happen without Bosio or Kyle Schwarber. But the fastest way for the Cubs to dramatically improve their pitching staff isn’t finding someone else who thinks it’s important to throw strikes. It could mean breaking up The Core and severing another emotional attachment.   

Theo Epstein saw Schwarber play for Indiana University and used the Fenway Park frame of reference, envisioning him as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia with his left-handed power and energizer personality.

Epstein wasn’t the only Cubs official to develop a man-crush on Schwarber, but he’s the only one with ultimate control over baseball operations. Epstein’s style isn’t pounding the table as much as the ability to frame questions in the draft room, gather as many opinions as possible before the trade deadline and at the winter meetings, trying to form a consensus.

“I will say that it’s really an organization-wide evaluation of this player, but I’m not skirting responsibility,” Epstein said. “I’ll happily endorse him as the type of player that we want to win with here at the Cubs, and have won with. I don’t know, the fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start.

“But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. It’s important for him to get his identity back as a dangerous hitter. Honestly, I think we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of an Anthony Rizzo. When he reaches his prime, that’s what he could be.”

Where will that be? As a designated hitter in the American League? That’s obvious speculation, but Schwarber has improved as an outfield defender – his strong throw at Dodger Stadium led to another NLCS Maddon Moment where the manager compared the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax.      

A 43-45 record at the All-Star break also exposed some of the weaknesses in the clubhouse and downsides to Maddon’s methods. The Cubs flipped a switch in the second half, got hot in September and had the guts to beat the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. But that doesn’t completely wipe away the concerns about a group that at times seemed too casual and unfocused and didn’t play with enough edge. For better or worse, Schwarber approaches the game like a blitzing linebacker.

“He’s got a certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find,” Epstein said, “and that we don’t necessarily have in surplus, in abundance, running around in this clubhouse, in this organization.

“A certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together – that’s important and we rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he’s the type of offensive player that you build around, along with a couple other guys like him.”

Maddon would never admit it, but was the Schwarber leadoff experiment a mistake?

“I’ll judge that one based on the results and say yeah,” Epstein said. “I think we can talk about the process that went into it. Or in an alternate universe: Does it pan out? But those are just words. It didn’t work.

“Everything that went into Kyle’s really surprising and difficult first half of the season, we should look to correct, because that shouldn’t happen. He’s a way better hitter than that. What he did after coming back from Iowa proves it.”

In the same way that Maddon should own what happens with the next pitching coach, Epstein will ultimately have to decide Schwarber’s future.

Schwarber didn’t complain or pout when he got sent down to Triple-A Iowa this summer, finishing with 30 homers, a .782 OPS, a .211 batting average and a 30.9 strikeout percentage.    

Trading Schwarber would mean selling lower and take another team having the same gut instincts the Cubs did in the 2014 draft – and offering the talented, controllable starting pitcher that sometimes seems like a unicorn.

Is Schwarber still the legend from last year’s World Series? An all-or-nothing platoon guy? An intriguing trade chip? A franchise player? Eventually, the Cubs are going to find out.

“We have to look to do everything we can,” Epstein said, “and more importantly he has to look to do everything he can to get him to a point where he’s consistently the quality hitter and tough out and dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup that we know he can be.

“He wasn’t for the first half of this year – and he knows it and he feels awful about it. He worked his tail off to get back to having a pretty darn good second half and getting some big hits for us down the stretch.”

And then the offseason was only hours old by the time the Cubs showed they will be keeping an open mind about everything this winter, not afraid to make big changes.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

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USA TODAY

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.