Darren Baker, who grew up around the game, inches closer to his dream

Darren Baker, who grew up around the game, inches closer to his dream

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

Darren Baker and his dad don’t just share a love for baseball. They also have an appreciation for wildlife. The two spent time fishing together in South Florida during the last two spring trainings and also visited a turtle reserve, not too far from where they were staying.

But Darren’s dad, Dusty Baker, retired this past fall after four seasons as the Houston Astros manager. The baseball lifer stayed around the game, returning to the San Francisco Giants as an adviser. The Astros share a spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla., with the Washington Nationals, who are scheduled to have their first pitchers and catchers workout Wednesday. The Giants prepare for the coming MLB season in Arizona, though, which means Darren Baker’s third spring training with the Nationals will look slightly different.

“I’ve definitely thought about it a lot,” Darren Baker said last month. “It happens a lot with parents. You maybe take something for granted and then it’s too late. And then it’s like, ‘Man, that was really nice.’ But yeah, it’s definitely gonna be weird.”

Spring training may bring the future into focus for the Nationals

This isn’t the only change for the younger Baker. The 24-year-old second baseman is one of six prospects set to participate in their first big league camp. Baker spent last season with Class AAA Rochester; though he missed some time with a groin injury and rehabbed at lower levels. Now there’s a sense of urgency for Baker, who enters 2024 hoping to assert himself as a player who can help the Nationals compete in the future.

Baker has typically gone to Houston during his offseasons to spend time with his dad for the Astros’ postseason runs before returning home to California to train. He went back home earlier than normal last fall, though, to maximize his offseason ahead of 2024.

“I can feel like I’m getting closer,” he said. “Like to a dream, you know? I just know I can take it to another level.”

The offseason heading into 2023 was a lost one for Baker. He tore a ligament in his thumb sliding into a base in September 2022, but played through the rest of the season. He participated in the Arizona Fall League briefly, but ultimately he couldn’t move his hand without pain and opted for surgery.

Baker ended his 2023 season hitting .284 with three home runs and 44 RBI. It was a solid year, but there’s certainly room for improvement. Power has never been a part of Baker’s game, yet he still only had 11 doubles in 107 games in 2023 after 24 in 105 games in 2022. His slugging percentage (.349) was the same as his on-base percentage. Extra-base hits at the major league level will be even harder to come by.

Baker also missed most of June with a groin injury that lingered into July. He played sparingly and admits that he came back too soon. But the desire to prove himself outweighed the fact that he didn’t feel 100 percent.

“I just want something so bad,” said Baker, who grew up in big league clubhouses. “It’s hard not to see ahead a little bit sometimes.”

Baker said he’s made his biggest jump in an offseason. He put on almost 15 pounds since leaving Rochester. Baker also hopes to display better plate discipline this year, including being “more stubborn” in swinging in his hot zones. Last season, he felt like pitchers at Class AAA exploited him on balls inside, resulting in him getting jammed on fastballs or chasing breaking pitches down and in.

The Nationals have Luis García at second base, though Manager Dave Martinez said García has to earn the job this spring. Jake Alu, Ildemaro Vargas and Rule 5 pick Nasim Nuñez are all utility options behind him. But that hasn’t stopped Baker from believing his opportunity could come soon.

Baker still plans to continue some of his spring traditions, but not all of them. That turtle reserve trip was more of a father-son outing, he says. And, of course, not living with his dad means fewer free meals. But Baker said his dad plans to make it out to Florida to watch him play.

“He’ll be down there. I mean, he can’t stay away from it even if he wanted to,” Baker said. “My whole life literally, give or take a year or two, he’s been in the game. So I think he’ll really enjoy being able to see me.”

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