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Cubs reach 1-year deal with former Twins RHP Baker

Cubs reach 1-year deal with former Twins RHP Baker

CHICAGO (AP) Scott Baker wants to establish that he can still be an effective pitcher after having elbow surgery, and he'll get his chance with the Chicago Cubs.

The 31-year-old righty agreed Tuesday to a one-year deal that guarantees him $5.5 million next season. He could earn an additional $1.5 million in performance bonuses.

``I have every intention of being a competitive pitcher next year right away,'' he said.

Baker became a free agent after the Twins declined their $9.25 million option last month. With the Cubs, he gets a $150,000 bonus for reaching 145 innings and an additional $150,000 for every five innings he pitches after that up to 190.

Baker was 63-48 with a 4.15 ERA with Minnesota from 2005-11. He underwent Tommy John ligament replacement surgery April 17 and missed last season after being limited to 23 appearances (21 starts) in 2011, but he thinks he'll be ready for the start of spring training.

Several teams had shown interest, including the Twins, but the Cubs made it clear they were serious about him. The move fills one of the openings created by the departure of Justin Germano and Jason Berken.

Baker wasn't able to throw bullpen sessions for teams because his program had him taking time off, but he expects to resume throwing in about mid-to-late December. He thinks he'll be ready for the start of spring training, although he wasn't making any guarantees. But so far, the rehabilitation has gone about as well as possible.

``There are no certainties on rehabs, but we spent quite a bit of time on the medical and on his rehab,'' Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. ``It was described by our medical staff as an ideal Tommy John rehab so far. Everything has gone perfectly so far, and he's really attacked it in an ideal manner.''

He said Baker will probably limited to about five or six innings per start early in the season ``if things go perfectly'' and added: ``We're going to use good judgment every step of the way.''

He described Baker as ``an underrated'' pitcher with ``a very consistent track record of success'' and said the Cubs might want to sign him to an extension.

It's not the first time under Epstein that the Cubs have taken a chance on a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery.

They signed Manny Corpas to a one-year non-guaranteed deal last winter and acquired prospect Arodys Vizcaino from Atlanta in the deal that sent Paul Maholm to the Braves last July. The Cubs had also gambled on Maholm by signing him from Pittsburgh last January after he had to shut it down because of a left shoulder strain, and he was 9-6 with a 3.74 ERA they traded him.

``You'd love to sign pitchers who are 100 percent healthy and have never been hurt, but those animals don't really exist. They're certainly hard to find,'' Epstein said. ``The medical assessment on every pitcher is very important and if you have to sign a pitcher who's coming off of surgery, Tommy John is the one you want him to come off because it's a very predictable rehab with a very strong success rate, upward of 95 percent and even above if you look at more recent information.''

Baker doesn't think he'll have to change his approach because of the injury, although he's anticipating a few bumps along the way.

``I'm going to promise 20 wins and 200 innings,'' he said. ``I think you have to be a realist and you have to realize there are going to be speed bumps along the way, but in saying that, I think you're able to combat those speed bumps and really kind of get to the bottom of the problem or the situation in the first place and kind of allow yourself to work through those things.''

NOTES: Epstein said RHP Matt Garza will go for a scan on his injured pitching elbow this week. He did not pitch after July 21 last season. ... Epstein said 3B Ian Stewart, who missed much of last season with a wrist injury last spring, reported a few days ago that ``everything felt really good.''

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Stanley Cup Final 2018: X-factors that could swing the series

Stanley Cup Final 2018: X-factors that could swing the series

The Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights have met only twice in their history. Neither team was expected to get to this point so you can go ahead and throw away the stats, the matchups, the data and the history. A new story will be written in the Stanley Cup FInal.

Who will ultimately win the Cup? Here are four factors that could ultaimtely swing the series.

1. Goaltending

The Caps have faced elimination only twice in the playoffs and Braden Holtby did not allow a single goal in either game. He enters the Stanley Cup Final having not allowed a single goal in 159:27. Andrei Vasilevskiy began to take over the series with his performance in Game 3, Game 4 and Game 5, but Holtby outplayed him to finish off the series in Washington’s favor.

Marc-Andre Fleury, meanwhile, has been the best player in the playoffs. Not the best goalie, the best player.

Through 15 games, Fleury has a .947 save percentage and four shutouts. As good as Vegas has been this postseason, Fleury has stolen several games for the Golden Knights.

Both of these goalies are certainly capable of stealing away a series for their respective teams. Which one will outplay the other?

2. Time off

Rust is a real thing in hockey. Just any team when they come off a bye week. When the Caps and Golden Knights take the ice on Monday, May 28, it will be the first game for Vegas since May 20. That’s over a week off.

Yes, getting rest at this time of the year is important, but too much rest leads to rust and that should be a major concern for Vegas, especially for a team that was playing so well and has so much momentum.

In the Eastern Conference Final, the Caps stunned the Tampa Bay Lightning by winning both Game 1 and Game 2 in Tampa. Could they do it again with a rusty Vegas team? Will the long layoff cost the Golden Knights one or even two home games to start the series?

3. The McPhee factor

Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee was the Caps’ general manager for 17 years starting with the 1997-98 season. He was fired in 2014, but was ultimately responsible for building the core of the Washington team that is now headed to the Stanley Cup Final.

But that also means he knows those players very, very well.

Nicklas Backstrom, Travis Boyd, Andre Burakovsky, John Carlson, Christian Djoos, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana, Tom Wilson, Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer and of course, Alex Ovechkin were all drafted by McPhee. Jay Beagle was also signed by as an undrafted free agent.

A general manager does not sign or draft anyone without knowing a good deal about the kind of player they are. Does that give McPhee a bit of an edge when it comes to facing the Caps?

4. Speed

The Golden Knights are fast. When the expansion draft was all said and done it was clear McPhee had targeted two things specifically: defensemen and speed. The result is an exceptionally fast Golden Knights team that no one has been able to keep up with so far.

Vegas' speed mixed with the goaltending of Fleury has proven to be a lethal combination. Their mobility makes it hard to get the puck from them or even keep it in the offensive zone. Once they get it, it’s going down the ice very quickly and you better keep up with them or it's going to end up in the back of the net. Once they build a lead, it is very difficult for teams to dig their way out as evidenced by their 10-1 record this postseason when scoring first.

Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh were both fast teams as well and the Capitals were able to combat that with strong play in the neutral zone. The 1-3-1 trap has given opponents fits and generated a lot of odd-man breaks for the Caps. Will it be as effective against a speedy Vegas team?

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Trotz's future in Washington remains unsettled on eve Stanley Cup Final

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Trotz's future in Washington remains unsettled on eve Stanley Cup Final

Caps Coach Barry Trotz doesn’t have a contract beyond the Stanley Cup Final, and any potential talks about an extension will wait until the trophy is awarded, GM Brian MacLellan said Friday.

“No,” MacLellan said, asked if a decision on Trotz’s future had been made. “We’re going to address everything after the playoffs are over.”

Trotz’s four-year contract expires at season’s end.

It’s rare for a head coach to enter a season while in the final year of his deal. But that’s how the Caps decided to handle Trotz’s situation last offseason after another strong regular season performance ended with yet another second round playoff exit at the hands of the Penguins.

It was a suboptimal situation for Trotz, a 55-year-old who ranks fifth all-time in regular season victories but, until this year, had never led any team beyond the conference semifinals.

Despite his lame duck status, all Trotz did was produce his best coaching performance to date. 

Consider:

  • While visiting his son in Russia last summer, Trotz visited Alex Ovechkin in Moscow to discuss the changes he’d like to see the Caps’ captain make to his training and his game.
  • When the Caps reconvened for training camp in September, it was clear there were still some hurt feelings in the locker room. So Trotz and his assistants backed off, allowing some necessary healing to occur.
  • When the team suffered back-to-back blowout losses in Nashville and Colorado back in November, Trotz initiated a tell-it-like-it-is team meeting that many players have pointed to as the turning point of the regular season, which ended with the team’s third straight Metropolitan title.
  • Trotz also got his highly-skilled lineup to buy into a more structured, detailed style of play late in the campaign, a transformation that prompted MacLellan to call this playoff run the most defensively responsible of Trotz’s tenure.
  • In each of the two previous conference semifinals, Washington was defeated by Pittsburgh and, as a result, the Penguins had become a physical and a mental hurdle for the Caps. Earlier this month, Trotz helped direct Ovechkin and Co. past the two-time Cup champions.

Although MacLellan wouldn’t say much about Trotz’s contract, he did say that he’s noticed a big change in Trotz’s day-to-day approach to his job, a change possibly prompted by the coach’s free agent status.

“I think his demeanor has changed a little bit,” MacLellan said. “He seems a little lighter, a little looser, a little less pressure. Maybe a little more freedom about how he goes about things. He’s more relaxed, I guess would be the way to describe him.”

MacLellan also acknowledged the job Trotz’s has done this season, beginning with his delicate handling of the dressing room to start the year.

“I think he’s done a good job managing it,” MacLellan said. “To come in this year with so many questions—from my point of view, the lineup questions weren’t that big of a deal—but just the emotional state of our coming into to start the year [and] how to handle that. I think he’s done an outstanding job.”

Indeed, Trotz’s situation remains unclear on the eve of the Final. But we do know this much: He’s having one of the best contract years in NHL coaching history.

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