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Tigers Make a Risky, Yet Sensible Choice to Sign Javier Báez

Here are three reasons why Detroit offered one of baseball's most entertaining and frustrating players a six-year, $140 million contract.

Javier Báez did not enter this winter as the most hyped free-agent shortstop, or the most probable to get a monster deal, or the most obvious for a win-now contender. But he did enter as the most intriguing: How would teams assess Báez? The 28-year-old has some of the best defense in the game. He also has a streaky bat, a strikeout-heavy approach at the plate and big, existential questions about how his skill set will age. He’s both one of the most entertaining players in the game and one of the most frustrating to watch. So what could he receive in a market stuffed with other marquee shortstops?

The Tigers gave an answer on Tuesday: Báez will go to Detroit on a six-year, $140-million contract. That’s more (and more years) than was typically projected for him. But it might end up being something close to an ideal fit for the Tigers. Here are three reasons why it works:

1. This is a Massive Defensive Upgrade for a Team That Needed One

We’ll start with Báez’s biggest strength: He’s a phenomenal defensive presence. That would be a benefit to any team, but especially so to the Tigers, who ranked dead-last in defensive runs above average in 2021. (Other fielding metrics were slightly more generous to them, but all suggested that this was clearly not a good defensive team, somewhere in the bottom half of the league in just about all statistical categories.) This meant that Detroit could stand to upgrade at a few spots on the diamond. But a particularly obvious one was shortstop, which was split last year by utilityman Niko Goodrum and rookie Zach Short, and left plenty of room to be desired.

Enter Báez. He’s best known for his flashy highlights, but what makes him so special is the way he executes the little things, even on the most routine of plays. (There are few guys who can make applying a tag look like such an art form.) He can’t fix an entire defense by himself, but he can take a huge step toward making it better. And given that he’ll be playing behind a young starting rotation—more on that below—a sharp infield defense will be particularly important here. The bottom line? Detroit had a particular hole (shortstop) in a general weakness (defense), and they filled it with one of the best, most dynamic players they could have found.

Sep 26, 2021; Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; New York Mets shortstop Javier Baez (23) reacts after hitting a double to drive in 2 runs in the fourth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field.

Javier Báez showed improved plate discipline after being traded to the Mets last season.

2. The Tigers Are Ready to Start (Trying to) Win

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Detroit hasn’t had a winning season since 2016. But it’s hoping that its rebuild is now coming to a close. The club took a step forward last year (notably with a second-half winning percentage of .521), and there’s reason to believe that next year will be even better, perhaps considerably so. The farm system is finally starting to bear fruit. There’s an exciting young rotation here—led by Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning—that will ideally look more solid with another year of development under each pitcher's belt. There should be major-league debuts soon for two key prospects who can potentially bolster the offense: Spencer Torkelson, a corner infielder, and Riley Greene, an outfielder. The picture is starting to come together.

That means it’s time to start adding veterans to supplement this young core. The Tigers don’t seem like a playoff team just yet for 2022. (Although, hey, you never know in a division this squishy—particularly if the postseason gets expanded.) But if you look ahead to 2023 and 2024, the outlook is bright, and that means they’re ready to bring in some more established players. They did that for the rotation earlier this winter by adding Eduardo Rodriguez. Here, they’re doing it for the infield with Báez.

3. There Are Reasonable Answers for the Question Marks Here

It’s perfectly fair to ask why the Tigers wanted to commit six years to Báez. After all, two of the models that struggle most on an aging curve are defense-first players and plate-discipline-challenged players, and Báez is both. (Regarding the latter: His career walk percentage is just 4.8%.) There’s a reason that FanGraphs projected him for four years and MLB Trade Rumors projected him for five: A six-year contract simply seemed like too much risk for a player with this skill set.

But that’s not the way this shortstop market is going. Both Marcus Semien and Corey Seager signed for more than expected, and so Báez did, too. For the front office to stick to a seemingly more practical offer of four years might very well have been to miss him. Remember that old quote from Dodgers exec Andrew Friedman? “If you’re always rational about every free agent, you will finish third on every free agent." This feels like a great example of that: Detroit had to be a little irrational to get what it needed. (And if they were going to be super rational on Báez, then forget aiming above him, for someone like Carlos Correa.) 

Is Báez an ideal player on a perfectly optimal deal? No. But he doesn’t have to be. He’s a good shortstop who represents a major upgrade in a key area, who will help the team win now and in the next few years. While his contract is more than most had expected, it’s still not close to being the sort of seriously heavy, long-term deal that might cause this fanbase to wince. That’s all a win. And if it’s not quite magic, it might be close enough.

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