DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers have reportedly signed free agent shortstop Javier Baez to a six-year deal.
According to MLB insider Mark Feinsand, the deal is worth $140 million, which means the Tigers would pay Baez $23.3 million per year through his age-34 season (2027).
Javier Baez and the Tigers are nearing a deal, per source. It is expected to be a six-year contract worth $140 million.— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) November 30, 2021
Baez can reportedly opt out after two seasons and has a 10-team no-trade clause.
The Tigers missed out on the elite tier of free agent shortstops -- Carlos Correa, Corey Seager and Trevor Story -- but still landed a high-profile player.
Desperate for pitching and a shortstop, the Tigers knew they needed to hit free agency hard this offseason. They were the first team to make a big splash, signing Eduardo Rodriguez, but then went dormant for the following two weeks.
As many of the top free agents began to come off the board this week due to the impending lockout, the shortstop pool thinned. Marcus Semien and Seager both signed with the Texas Rangers, and reports surfaced that the Colorado Rockies were courting Story.
Meet Javier Baez
Baez is a good player -- there’s no denying that. The Tigers are a much better team with him than without him. But he’s not in the same class as Correa, Seager and Story.
He’ll turn 29 years old Wednesday (Dec. 1) and has eight years of MLB experience -- the first seven with the Chicago Cubs and one year split between the Cubs and New York Mets.
For his career, Baez has an excellent .477 slugging percentage and an ugly .307 on-base percentage. Over the past five seasons, he’s hit 23, 34, 29, eight and 31 home runs, with the outlier coming in a pandemic-shortened 2020.
Coming off a Gold Glove season in 2020, Baez committed a career-high 20 errors last year and ranked 19th in defensive runs saved among both shortstops and second basemen who logged at least 200 innings at their positions.
Last year, Baez stole 18 bases in 23 attempts. He swiped between 10 and 21 bags each season between 2016 and 2019, though his 71% success rate might not have warranted such aggression.
Deeper dive: Offense
Let’s get one thing straight before we dive deeper into these offensive numbers: Since Baez will be 29 years old by Opening Day, we pretty much know who he is as a hitter. He’s not likely to dramatically improve in any of these areas, especially coming to Comerica Park.
Baez has many of the raw tools teams look for in a star player. Last season, he ranked in the 67th percentile in average exit velocity (how hard the ball comes off his bat), the 74th percentile in hard-hit rate (the percentage of batted balls hit above 95 mph) and 68th percentage in xSLG (expected slugging percentage based on quality of contact.
Translation: Baez hits the ball hard... when he hits the ball.
Few players swing and miss as much as the Tigers’ new shortstop. Last season, he led the National League with 184 strikeouts, whiffing in more than one-third (33.6%) of his plate appearances.
Baez ranks in the third percentile in terms of strikeout rate and the sixth percentile in terms of walk rate, meaning he strikes out more than 97% of MLB players and walks less often than 94% of MLB players.
The saving grace for Baez is that when he puts the ball in play, good things tend to happen. He posted a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) north of .340 each of the last four full seasons (excluding 2020) and generally bats between .260 and .290, which, considering his strikeout numbers, says a lot about how hard he hits the ball.
More concerning than the raw strikeout data is the way his profile seems to be trending. Players who struggle to make contact often age less gracefully than players with strong plate discipline, and while Baez isn’t an old player, he’s entering his 30s, which is beyond a baseball player’s prime.
Over the past four seasons, Baez’s strikeout rate has risen from 25.9% to 27.8% to 31.9% to 33.6%. That’s a very steady rise and suggests that, if anything, the holes in his swing are growing larger.
One positive is that Baez’s power shouldn’t take a major hit at Comerica Park. Of his 31 homers in 2021, only five registered on Statcast as “doubters,” meaning they might not have had the quality of contact expected for a home run.
Baez also has doubles and triples power. In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him hit 30 doubles and 10 triples at Comerica Park with his power and speed. Baez has hit 120 doubles and 17 triples over the past four full seasons.
Deeper dive: Base running
Baez has above-average speed and is a solid base runner, by all accounts.
While the stolen base percentage suggests he makes a few too many risks, Baez will likely be among the Tigers’ team leaders in stolen bases. He was particularly successful last season, swiping 18 bases and only getting caught five times.
According to Fangraphs’ all-encompassing base running metric, Baez was the 52nd-best base runner in MLB last season, in terms of taking extra bases and avoiding outs compared to the average player.
On non-stolen base plays, Baez was 69th in baseball when it came to base running. That’s calculated by how often he scored runs compared to how often the average player would be expected to score runs in the same on-base scenarios.
From an eye test perspective, Baez is an exciting and emotional player on the base paths. He will steal third base if the opposing pitcher isn’t paying attention to him, and he’s the kind of player who would love to try to steal second base to get into scoring position as the tying run with two outs in the ninth inning.
Baez will likely have some epic base running moments during his time in Detroit, but there will also be blunders that leave Tigers fans shaking their heads. His aggression is a double-edged sword.
Deeper dive: Defense
Baez wasn’t a top-three Gold Glove finalist at either second base or shortstop this season, possibly because he didn’t register enough innings at either one. He played over 800 innings at shortstop and nearly 300 innings at second base -- all of the latter with the Mets after joining Francisco Lindor at the trade deadline.
Each of the three seasons before 2021, Baez was an excellent defensive shortstop. He won his only Gold Glove in 2019 and graded out as one of the best at the position in 2018 and 2019.
He led all of baseball with 31 defensive runs saved at shortstop in 2019 and wasn’t even a Gold Glove finalist. In 2018, he played the majority of his innings at second base, but graded out well in 462.2 innings at short.
Baez isn’t nearly as good a defender as Correa or Story, but he’s a major upgrade there for the Tigers. They’re hoping he can continue to get the job done into his mid-30s, when range can often become a concern.
A.J. Hinch loves to get creative with his lineups at times, and Baez has a strong enough arm to play third base and has even spent a few games per season in the outfield. If a late substitution or pinch runner forces the Tigers into a tough spot, Baez could move around to make the pieces fit.
Look, the Tigers needed to upgrade at shortstop, and they did that with Baez. He’s an undeniably good player who comes with some flaws.
If I sound concerned, it’s because those flaws are in many of the areas I consider most important when trying to project future production. Baez is among the league leaders in unproductive outs, and that makes him volatile.
Volatile equals unreliable, and the Tigers have enough of that already. They’re banking on two prospects who have never seen MLB pitching to be the center of their offensive rebuild. They’re counting on Robbie Grossman and Jonathan Schoop to mimic career seasons. They’re hoping and praying to get some form of MLB production out of the likes of Derek Hill, Daz Cameron, Jake Rogers, Victor Reyes and Harold Castro down the line.
Correa would have been a stable, known commodity at the center of all that uncertainty. The same goes for Seager (as an elite hitter) and Story (as an elite defender and base runner). By settling for Baez to save money, the Tigers are also knowingly settling for a worse player when they have plenty of money to go get the best.
Baez is a nice addition, but he’s not a star. When’s the last time a team won a World Series without a single star on the roster? Now, the Tigers are gambling on Riley Greene or Spencer Torkelson becoming that player.
The final item on the to-do list would be for the Tigers to add another starting pitcher. Since they saved money at shortstop, it would be nice to see them target a more reliable option, such as Marcus Stroman. Otherwise, the offseason this entire rebuild has been gaining momentum toward will end up feeling underwhelming.