Báez deal a sign: Tigers are here to compete

December 2nd, 2021

DETROIT -- Tigers general manager Al Avila remembers watching early in his Cubs career and turning green with envy. The Tigers were near still in their rebuilding phase at the time, while Báez was in the midst of a National League MVP runner-up season.

“We played them a few years ago in Chicago,” Avila recalled, “and he’s running the bases and he’s making plays all over the place. And I’m saying to myself, ‘Can we just get that guy out of the game? Because he’s making the difference on his own.’

“I was just beside myself, and I’m like, ‘Can we get a guy like that?’”

Fast forward three years, and the clock hit 2:30 a.m. ET Tuesday when Avila got off the phone with Báez’s agent. He had been on the phone with team owner Christopher Ilitch past midnight before grinding out a deal. An ensuing phone call with manager A.J. Hinch kept Avila up until 4 a.m.

They had crisscrossed the country so much on recruiting trips this offseason that Avila joked about his frequent-flier status. They’d dived into the frenzy of free-agent signings, and after all that, the Tigers got their shortstop, the same sparkplug Avila remembers watching at Wrigley Field.

“I’m really excited to be a Tiger now,” Báez said Wednesday as he celebrated his 29th birthday with a six-year contract and a new team. “I’m really excited to be here, and I’m ready to play.”

If the Tigers can get Báez to make that kind of impact in Detroit, his signing could go down as a key point in their quest to contend again.

“This is a turning point for the Tigers, undoubtedly,” Ilitch said. “Signing a player like Javy, I think, sends a message to the baseball world and to our fans that the Tigers are here to compete.”

The $140 million contract is the Tigers’ largest for a free agent since Prince Fielder a decade ago, and the largest contract of any sort since Christopher Ilitch became the team's owner. The deal includes an opt-out clause for Báez after the 2023 season.

Like Ivan Rodriguez in 2004 and Magglio Ordonez a year later, it isn’t the biggest or flashiest deal of the offseason. But like those deals, the Báez move is an opportunistic signing to fill a need with a potentially undervalued player.

“He’s a perfect fit for us,” Hinch said.

The Tigers centered their rebuilding project around pitching and rode their young starters to a 77-win season in 2021, their best win total since 2016. With two of baseball’s top hitting prospects in corner infielder Spencer Torkelson and outfielder Riley Greene, the future already looked bright in Detroit. To take the next step towards contention, however, the Tigers needed a shortstop.

The much-rumored tie was Carlos Correa, who played for Hinch in Houston. The two were spotted dining together a couple weeks ago, furthering speculation. However, Avila and his group took a wide-ranging approach, engaging with agents for the entire handful of top free-agent shortstops on the market.

One of their recruiting visits was to Miami to meet with Báez.

“One thing that we wanted to know for sure before we got deeper into this,” Avila said, “is that Javy wanted to come to Detroit to be a part of this renaissance, per se, and be a key part of it. We explained to him where we were as an organization, as a baseball team, and where we wanted to get to, and how we felt he could be a big part of making us better and getting us to the playoffs.”

Báez liked the young talent, and the idea of being a veteran presence for a team on the rise. But he also liked the chance to play with, and learn from, reigning veteran Miguel Cabrera.

Like he did with Eduardo Rodriguez, Cabrera played recruiter with Báez. And just like with Rodriguez, the sales pitch made an impact.

“Everyone wants to learn something from Miggy,” Báez said. “And that was one of the biggest things that I wanted to come here.”

Báez was a two-time National League All-Star in Chicago. In 2018, he led the NL with 111 RBIs to go with 34 home runs, a .290 batting average and an .881 OPS. He was a repeat All-Star and a Gold Glove Award winner in 2019, slugging 29 homers with 85 RBIs, a .281 average and an .847 OPS. He also won an NL Gold Glove Award that season. But Báez's offensive production has come with a heavy dose of strikeouts, including an NL-leading 184 in 2021.

A midseason trade to the Mets set up an offensive revival, helped by a lower strikeout rate, better patience at the plate and a hit-to-all-fields approach at spacious Citi Field. A chance to learn hitting from Cabrera and hit at Comerica Park, Báez believes, could make him even better.

"The way that Miggy has done this for many years and many swings,” Báez said, “I want to have that confidence, to have an approach like Miggy and something that takes me to the next level. I think I haven’t had my best season yet. I’m working to have a great season, and I want to talk to Miggy to learn something about swings to keep for the rest of my career. I’m working on seeing the ball and chase less pitches."

If Báez can do that, he’ll have addressed the biggest question about his game. When he connects with pitches, he’s an electric player who puts his athleticism to work on the field. The more he can do that, the more he fits into the Tigers’ style of play under Hinch, and the better this deal looks.

“I think Javy, with the way his career has gone, the impact that he’s had, the ups and downs and everything in between, has come out of it a super tough kid that knows how to win,” Hinch said. “He’s a player that quite honestly posts and shows up every single day to beat you. And to me, that competitive character that he brings is something that we’ve been trying to build for a year since I’ve been here. He’s a perfect fit, and as the manager, I couldn’t be happier.”