Why signing shortstop Javier Baez is 'turning point' for Detroit Tigers

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  • Javier Báez
    Javier Báez
    Puerto Rico baseball player
  • Christopher Ilitch

Javier Baez celebrated his 29th birthday Wednesday.

His gift?

A six-year, $140 million contract from the Detroit Tigers. The deal became official Wednesday afternoon, as Baez traveled to Lakeland, Florida, home of the team's spring training complex. He completed his medical exams, signed the papers and tossed on a baseball cap with the Old English D logo.

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"This is a turning point for the Tigers, undoubtedly," Tigers owner Christopher Ilitch said. "Signing a player like Javy sends a message to the baseball world and to our fans that the Tigers are here to compete. We want to be highly competitive. We want to be successful."

The Tigers entered the offseason with needs at catcher, starting pitcher and shortstop. The organization traded for catcher Tucker Barnhart (and picked up his $7.5 million team option) and signed left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez to a five-year, $77 million contract. But without an established shortstop, those moves would not be enough to catapult the Tigers into postseason contention.

So, Tigers general manager Al Avila signed Baez.

"I'm going to bring my energy here," Baez said. "I want to pump these guys up and see how far we can go during the season and obviously try to make the playoffs and the World Series."

"He's a perfect fit for us," Tigers manager AJ Hinch added. "His competitive character is remarkable. He has a short memory and all he cares about is winning today's game. You've heard that quote from me time and time again. Let's bring winners here that want to win today's game and then see where that takes us."

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Baez has eight seasons of MLB experience, spending his entire career with the Chicago Cubs before he was shipped at last July's trade deadline to the New York Mets. He hit .248 in 91 games for the Cubs, then .299 in 47 games for the Mets last season.

He paced the National League with 184 strikeouts but clobbered 31 home runs and stole 18 bases.

"When I got to New York, the field gave me a little more confidence," Baez said. "I'm a guy that swings hard. I try to control my swing, even though I really can't swing slow. It just gave me the confidence to start going the other way and not just hitting for power. I was trying to go gap-to-gap."

He has a .264 batting average, .307 on-base percentage and .477 slugging percentage, to go with 149 home runs and 465 RBIs in 862 games. His strikeout rate (29.3%) and walk rate (4.6%) are well below average, but Baez plans to clean up those marks with the help of Miguel Cabrera, a 38-year-old with a Hall of Fame resume.

"Everyone wants to learn something from Miggy, and that was one of the biggest things for why I wanted to come here," Baez said. "Every time I go somewhere, I learn and pick up stuff that really helps me. Miggy is one of the guys that helps everybody around. I'm excited to have him right next to me."

Baez gives the Tigers above-average defense at shortstop and is a power threat from the right side of the plate. He is a two-time All-Star, Gold Glove winner and World Series champion.

The Tigers — talented but young — will look to Baez for leadership.

"I like to be in this position," Baez said. "I like to be the one that teaches the guys that have questions. I like to be the guy that everybody follows. I don't like to show that around, like that I'm the leader or whatever, because I like everybody to join and help and put something together. I don't know how it's going to be. I don't play with that pressure. I try to control as much as I can, but we'll see when spring training starts."

TIGERS INSIDER: Why Tigers chose Javy Baez over Carlos Correa or another top SS

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New York Mets shortstop Javier Baez slides to second base with a double against the San Francisco Giants at Citi Field, Aug. 26, 2021.
New York Mets shortstop Javier Baez slides to second base with a double against the San Francisco Giants at Citi Field, Aug. 26, 2021.

With Baez on the roster, the Tigers believe they're ready to compete for a spot in the postseason for the first time since 2014. A lot has to happen for them to reach their goal, including a few more offseason moves, but the Tigers think the puzzle is almost complete.

They finished 77-85 last season, enough wins for third place in the American League Central but not nearly enough wins for the playoffs. It was the franchise's best record since 2016. By adding Barnhart, Rodriguez and Baez, though, the Tigers have become a much better team.

"We went through some tough times, some tough things we had to do," Avila said. "This is the good part, where you get to build it back up. This is the time to make it happen. We're not happy yet. We're not satisfied yet. Not until we get to the World Series and win it, but this is a good step forward.

"It's good to know that we can plan bobblehead nights for guys like Javy Baez and Rodriguez, as opposed to, I was getting calls from the business side: Can we do this for this guy? Or is he going to be around? Now we can make plans for bobblehead night for some secure guys here. It's a big difference, believe me."

[ Can Javier Baez push Tigers into postseason? Here's potential Opening Day roster ]

Remember what Hinch said back in October?

He expressed his desire to tell his players in spring training that they have a chance to make the playoffs, which ultimately gives them an opportunity to win the World Series. The Tigers, of course, need to prove themselves on the field, but on paper, they have the talent required to evolve Hinch's winning culture into a winning record.

And Baez is a big reason why.

"He's a player that, quite honestly, posts and shows up every single day to beat you," Hinch said. "If you're not on our team, if you're not wearing the English 'D, if you're not in our dugout, he's against you. 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. As the manager, I couldn't be happier."

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Tigers SS Javier Baez is 'perfect fit' for AJ Hinch

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