A man gets called into his boss’ office. The boss tells the man that he must take a paid leave of absence in order to make room for a returning employee. “That’s ridiculous,” the man says, “you should just get rid of someone.” Several days later, the man is shipped off — relocated from Los Angeles to Atlanta.
The man was Danys Baez; the boss was (Dodgers GM) Ned Colletti; the returning employee was journeyman Brett Tomko.
“How did it come to this?” Baez surely wondered, three days before the 2006 trade deadline, (two before Bobby Abreu was traded from Baez’ future home.) The previous year, Baez had put together his best season as a major leaguer, saving 41 games and compiling a 2.86 ERA during an All-Star campaign in Tampa Bay. The year before that, he saved 30 games in 33 chances. But Tampa Bay viewed him as an expendable commodity, trading him to the Dodgers for then-prospect Edwin Jackson before the ’07 season. That’s how Baez made it out west.
“You never know when you are going to be traded,” Baez told LA reporters after the trade to Atlanta was announced. “I am going to a new team and a new organization and I am just going to keep working hard.” Working hard to get back to his high watermark, the period between 2003 and 2005.
With the Dodgers, Baez simply didn’t do his job. He arrived in southern California prior to the 2006 season to serve as the team’s interrim closer until Eric Gagne was healthy. The experiment did not work; Baez blew seven saves in 16 opportunities. Gagne’s health was still an issue by the time Baez was traded – Gagne only made two appearances in ’06 – but it was clear that Baez was not the ideal replacement.
Why did he struggle so much in LA, or in the National League? Up until that point, his numbers had been compiled in the AL, a tougher league for pitchers to build and sustain success. Moreover, in the immediate two years before his departure to Los Angeles, Baez was saving games for a team in the AL East, a perenially hard-hitting division which unsurprisingly housed the two best offensive teams both seasons — 2004 and 2005.
Was it the pressure? Could have been. Even though Baez was successful as a closer in the AL East, those seasons took place when the Rays were the Devil Rays, a shoe-in for ninety losses per year. And before he got to Tampa Bay, Baez was on two very bad Cleveland Indians teams. In the four seasons from 2002 to 2005, the teams he played for went a combined 269-368 and never finished closer than twenty-one games out of first place. The pressure of finally pitching for a contender may have prevented him from closing games in LA.
Oddly enough, Baez’ peripheral numbers in Los Angeles were all right in line with his career numbers. His command was better than it had ever been, his strikeout rate was only down slightly, his velocity remained the same, and hitters swung and missed more against him in the NL. His 1.28 WHIP wasn’t significantly high, and it’s not as if the three homers he allowed in fifty innings were worrisome. Could’ve been pressure, could’ve just been bad luck.
Regardless of the reason, Baez, a Cuban defector who arrived and stayed in Canada for the Pan American Games in 1999, had already experienced the peaks and valleys of a major league career. He was only 28.
Baez should have refrained from even unpacking once he got to Atlanta, as he only made eleven appearances in the final months of the 2006 season before signing with the Orioles, back home in the AL East. The Orioles actually gave him a pretty hefty chunk of change despite his struggles, signing him to a three-year, $19 million deal.
He did a whole lot of nothing in 2007, his first year with the Orioles, posting a 6.44 ERA in fifty of the worst innings of his career. Then, when nothing else could go wrong, Baez went under the knife for elbow surgery that kept him from taking the hill once in 2008.
He returned in 2009 and finally put together the year the Orioles envisioned when they cut the check, pitching 71 innings with a 4.02 ERA and a very impressive 1.13 WHIP. His 61% ground ball rate was absolutely bonkers. Nope, not a typo. Sixty-one percent (137 of 225) of balls in play against Danys Baez in 2009 were on the ground. Think Ruben Amaro took a look at that number?
Despite a successful 2009 campaign, the Orioles showed little interest in retaining Baez. It isn’t hard to see why — if you paid someone $19 million for one good season, one horrible season, and one spent on the DL, would you be jumping to the front of the line to bring him back?
The Phillies swooped in and signed Baez to a two-year/$5.25 million contract over the holidays. The team hopes they found a pitcher that can bolster the back-end of the bullpen. Baez hopes his strange, up-and-down journey has reached a “settling down” phase. He surely hopes the injuries and ineffectiveness are gone, and both parties hope the groundballs are here to stay. They could sure use some grounders in the not-so-friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park.
At 32, Baez doesn’t have to prove he can close anymore. He doesn’t have to prove he’s worth nineteen million dollars, either. All he has to prove is that he can pitch for a winner.