Javy hoping to 'pick up the whole team' with rebound in '24

February 16th, 2024

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The first locker Tigers players, coaches, front-office members and media see when they walk into the Tigers’ Spring Training clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium has always belonged to Miguel Cabrera, ever since the clubhouse was renovated in 2017. It was fitting; not only was he the face of the team, he set the tone for the club.

With Cabrera now retired, that locker now belongs to . With a crowd of media around him Friday morning, it was more than a symbolic gesture.

“Yeah, that's kind of weird getting his locker,” Báez said.

Then again, on some level, it makes sense.

“Other than Miguel, nobody gets more attention on this team by our dugouts, from fans, every time he steps on the field, than Javy,” manager A.J. Hinch said at the end of last season.

Not only is Báez one of the reigning veterans on the roster, he’s also one of the few players signed to a long-term contract, with $98 million coming over the next four years. With Cabrera gone, Báez is the highest-paid Tiger this season at $25 million, nearly double the next-highest salary. He broke into the league in 2014, when his new projected double-play partner Colt Keith was in middle school.

“There's a few veterans here. There's a lot of young guys, too,” Báez said Friday. “They like to listen and learn from the others. I think I do a good job staying close to them and around them, so hopefully I'll play better this year and I can pick up the whole team.”

Báez said he doesn’t feel any additional pressure to lead with Cabrera gone. Ideally, his performance will do the talking. Still, he’s going to be a center of attention regardless.

“I think for him, playing shortstop on a team built with really good pitching and sort of being the center hubcap of the defense, that’s a huge position for us,” Hinch said Friday morning.

While the Tigers have a young core of homegrown players ready to step up, from a potentially stacked rotation led by Tarik Skubal to a lineup centered around Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene and Kerry Carpenter, their hopes of jumping into contention in the AL Central look better if Báez produces.

The struggles have been well-documented. Báez posted a 62 OPS+ last year, second lowest of any qualified Major League hitter. His 0.6 bWAR was his lowest since 2015. He ranked near the bottom of Major League hitters in chase rate (first percentile), walk rate (third percentile) and batting run value (fourth percentile).

The Tigers went into the offseason knowing they need to get more from Báez, which is why they had trainers and coaches working with him in Florida and Puerto Rico.

“He’s working really hard behind the scenes,” president of baseball operations Scott Harris said at the end of last season. “I think there are some things that we can change about his work, about the specific things that he’s working on to make some adjustments that help him both at the plate and in the field.”

Like many players in the early days of Spring Training, Báez said Friday he feels much improved. However, he talked more about his change in health.

“This offseason, I was working on my low back and my core, which I feel like I wasn’t using the right way last year,” Báez said. “It’s been feeling pretty good. We’ll see how it goes now that we’re going to start.”

The back, Báez said, has been an issue for both of his seasons in Detroit. His only trip to the injured list as a Tiger was for a right thumb injury in 2022, but he has been scratched from lineups for various issues in that time, including a few games against the Dodgers last September with lower back tightness.

Other games, he said, he played through any back issues. He said the problem not only impacted him in the field, but limited his ability to go to the opposite field with hits.

“I'm going to be out there as long as I can, no matter what's bothering me,” he said. “I'm trying to be smarter this year if something's bothering me, just to speak up and take the day if I need it. But I feel really good right now, and I'm in pretty good shape. We'll see how it goes when the full-squad [workouts] start [next week], but everything looks pretty good.”