The path taking Cleveland minor league prospect Dylan Baker from his home in Alaska to his current spot on the Indians’ 40-man roster has been a long and trying one for the young pitcher.
After one start in 2015, he was shut down for the season with right elbow issues that led to Tommy John surgery. In 2014, he started the season with the Carolina Mudcats with six perfect innings on the mound, but was lost less than a week later after breaking his fibula while walking out for his second start, thought to have been caused by a line drive that struck him during spring training. Three months later, he made it back to Carolina, pitching in eight more games to wrap up his season.
Baker, a 23-year-old right-hander, has in fact made it through just one full season of work as he enters his fifth season in the Indians organization. Despite the injuries, Cleveland had enough faith in his potential that they placed him on their 40-man roster for the first time following the season, despite having only pitched in a total of ten games at the High-A level in their system.
Baker started his baseball journey in Juneau, Alaska, hardly the grounds for what most would consider a friendly place for playing baseball, given the seasons. That said, the scouting of Alaskan prospects, like the playing time available for the young players, is minimal and Baker talked to just two schools for post-secondary play.
After a stay with Tacoma Community College in Washington, he shifted to the College of Western Nevada in Carson City, where he saw his future potential blossom. His strong pitching performance for the school led to his selection by the Indians in the fifth round of the 2012 amateur draft.
A brief eight-game tour with the Arizona League Indians in 2012 preceded his first full season of professional ball. He went 7-6 with the Lake County Captains of Single-A, posting a 1.30 WHIP, a 3.63 ERA, and registering 117 strikeouts in 143 2/3 innings.
His 2014 season started with the impressive six innings of perfection versus the Frederick Keys, but he left the game with his pitch count hit. Unbeknownst to him at the time, his lower leg injury would shelve him until the second week of July when he returned to the mound for three rehab performances three months after his first start. He made eight more starts for Carolina to wrap up the regular season, going 2-3 with a 4.65 ERA in his final five weeks. He logged another six starts for Peoria of the Arizona Fall League following the regular season to get more work. He was 0-1 with a 4.24 ERA in that action.
“I definitely took this offseason a lot more seriously, just in the way I worked out and kept in shape, like stretching better. Having people around me to help me focus was a big help,” shared Baker in a story with MiLB.com’s Ashley Marshall at the start of the 2015 minor league season. “Maybe I just realized that I needed to step up my routine and my preparation work and take care of my body.”
Baker started that campaign in High-A again with the Indians’ new Lynchburg affiliate in Virginia. He gave the Hillcats five innings of hitless baseball, allowing a walk (to MLB rehabbing veteran Jayson Werth) and striking out a career-best nine Nationals minor leaguers before hitting his pitch count. His fastball was in the mid-90s consistently and he had a pair of breaking pitches and a change he was mixing in effectively. Early impressions may have been that he could see the Rubber City in his near future.
Instead, the first start for the Tribe’s then-number 14 prospect was the final start of his season.
Right elbow soreness snuck into the picture and ruined his plans for a strong bounce-back season on the mound. The pain lingered and he had the dreaded ulnar collateral ligament reconstructive surgery on his right pitching arm, ending his year. He has reportedly since had a follow-up surgery to deal with an infection from the original surgical site that was host to the replacement tendon.
Despite the broken lower leg and Tommy John surgery shortening consecutive seasons for the pitcher, the Indians protected Baker in November by adding him to their 40-man roster prior to the Rule 5 draft. The move made was a protective move by the club to prevent the loss of a promising, but oft-injured, prospect, something the club was reluctant to do several years ago with Hector Rondon. The closer for the Chicago Cubs last season, Rondon was selected by the Cubs and stashed in their MLB bullpen. He had worked briefly at the end of that season and in foreign winter league play while returning from his own Tommy John surgery and an additional procedure that followed on the same elbow.
As it stood, the Indians lost a pitcher, Akron’s Josh Martin, in the Major League portion of the 2015 Rule 5 draft to the San Diego Padres, but retained the services of Baker.
While Baker’s January surgery would not appear to set him back, he will still have to deal with the rehab and exercise associated with the Tommy John surgery recovery. A typical recovery time can be eight to 12 months, but response times can vary drastically from case to case.
Hopefully for Baker, it will a speedy and uneventful experience and will lead to more of his no-hit stuff to start the season and less of the injuries that have slowed his ascent through the farm system.
Photo: John Absalon/MiLB.com