Breaking down best- and worst-case scenarios for Detroit Tigers’ free agent additions

What will a combined $217 million for Javier Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez bring to Detroit?

New York Mets' Javier Baez celebrates his two-run home run that also scored Michael Conforto during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Washington Nationals, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Corey Sipkin) (Corey Sipkin, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

DETROIT – It’s been an offseason unlike any other for Major League Baseball, and especially for the Detroit Tigers.

The Tigers were the first team to strike a match and ignite the hot stove, signing starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez to a five-year deal worth $77 million. Now, this was a step in the right direction, as the last free agent to sign a multi-year deal with Detroit was Justin Upton back in 2016, when he signed a six-year deal.

Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out so well, as Upton was traded to the Los Angeles Angels halfway through his second season in Detroit.

After an abysmal start to the 2021 season, the Tigers surprised a lot of people’s expectations, thanks to the emergence of Rule 5 Draft selection Akil Baddoo, a bullpen that was rather successful for the first time in ages, and lights-out pitching from an inexperienced starting rotation. The Tigers finished last season 77-85, but more importantly, finished with something to prove.

Both Javier Baez and Rodriguez bring youth, postseason experience, a World Series ring and unlimited potential. It’s an exciting time to be a Detroit Tigers fan, but keep in mind, money doesn’t always buy success.

Javier Baez

Age: 29

Position: Shortstop/second base

Contract: Six years, $140 million

Best-case scenario

You can’t put a price on personality, and Baez might be the most daring, energetic and fun-to-watch player in all of baseball. If he embraces the role as one of the key pieces to turn this team around, the decision of signing Baez over Carlos Correa would become a thing of the past and save plenty of money in the long-run.

Javier Baez #9 of the Chicago Cubs reacts at second base after his RBI double in the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Wrigley Field on June 03, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Getty Images 2019)

Baez fills a gaping hole at shortstop; a position at which the Tigers have not gotten consistent offense, mostly due to Willi Castro and Niko Goodrum over recent years.

Baez, a two-time Gold Glove Award winner, will be the first active Tigers infielder with the award since Ian Kinsler in 2017. The timing couldn’t be better, as Detroit’s infield will look drastically different come next season.

Baez will be the everyday shortstop, though his impeccable range and strong arm are expendable to any position on the left side of the infield.

Manager A.J. Hinch didn’t keep a consistent infield last season, as players such as Jonathan Schoop constantly maneuvered around the infield. A solidified infield of Baez, Schoop, Candelario, and Spencer Torkelson (if he makes the team out of spring training) will be fun to watch on both sides of the ball.

Baez shouldn’t have a difficult time adjusting to his new home ballpark. He’s batting .382 with three homers in eight games at Comerica Park. He had a multi-homer game back in 2020 that featured an opposite-field home run off Tyler Alexander to one of the deepest parts of the ballpark. Here’s a tip: go back and watch highlights of those home runs and just listen to the crack of the bat -- you can’t tell me you’re not excited to see this guy in the Old English D.

The dimensions at Comerica should have “El Mago” (his classic nickname, meaning “The Magician”) licking his chops. According to Baseball Reference, 332 of his career hits are for line drives, the most in any category. If Baez can find a gap in left-center or right-center, his combination of speed and ability to hit for line drives should definitely drive his batting average, up as well as his extra-base hits.

He swiped 18 bases in 2021, matching Baddoo and Robbie Grossman.

What’s great about Baez is that he’s not the only addition that genuinely makes the Tigers a better team, and I don’t mean that in a negative fashion. From here on out, the roster is going to look completely different. There’s no telling what guys like Baddoo, Candelario and Eric Haase are capable of after coming off productive seasons.

Add in the potential additions of Riley Greene and Torkelson, and you have yourself a legitimate squad. Also, don’t take for granted just how valuable Miguel Cabrera still is to this team, especially when it comes to Baez and the young guys learning a thing or two from him.

To be honest, it’s a total coin-toss that the Tigers make the playoffs this season. I am confident they will at some point in the next few years, but in terms of this season, I wouldn’t rule that out just yet. You can’t attest Baez’s performance, for better or worse, to the Tigers making the postseason, but he definitely has a say.

In a nutshell

The best-case scenario is that Baez finds his old form thanks to a change of scenery in Detroit. His production in the lineup is consistent, as the Tigers have no issue on relying on his bat while his defensive skills bolster the infield seemingly overnight.

Baez’s contract looks like a steal, as his performance is up to par with some of the other free agent shortstops who signed for more than double the price. His energy and enthusiasm take the team to a whole new level.

Worst-case scenario

“Swing-and-a-miss” becomes a constant phrase in the press box when Baez is up to bat.

He ranked fifth in strikeouts in all of baseball with 184 last season, and they have been a constant issue for him over the course of his career. He struggles with plate discipline and doesn’t reach base often via the walk.

Having no discipline at the plate likely means you’re often leaving runners on base and not advancing them, which is something the Tigers don’t need any more of. Last season, the Tigers ranked fourth in all of baseball with the most strikeouts, averaging 9.35 per game. *Gulp.*

It goes without saying, but Baez needs to cut down on his strikeouts to be more productive. A decrease in strikeouts doesn’t always correlate to a better batting average, but there’s no saying it won’t happen.

Next season’s lineup is likely to look drastically different, and depending on what happens with Greene and Torkelson, I see Baez within the first five spots in the lineup, but it’s tricky to say. The biggest factor is where Cabrera will end up hitting and how likely he is to move near the bottom of the order, especially if his production continues to decline.

Regardless of where you put Baez, his high strikeout rate doesn’t suit well in any spot.

Where things can also go flat is that the gamble taken on Baez just wasn’t it. Detroit’s decision to snag the “cheapest” shortstop on the market instead of going for it all doesn’t do them any justice. I don’t think they overpaid for Baez, but what they could have done is pay that same amount or more to a guy like Correa or Trevor Story, with less time on the contract.

Personally, I am not the biggest fan of long-term contracts because you never know what you’re going to get in the later years of the deal (just look at the Cabrera and Albert Pujols contracts), but you can only ponder the “what-if’s” for so long.

In a nutshell

Highlight-reel defensive plays are great, but the worst-case scenario is that they don’t guarantee wins. Baez could fall short in his role to be a turning point for the team, after the Tigers had the option to spend a little more money and snag a superstar in the first place. Baez is only getting older, and that won’t help his strikeout numbers if he seemingly does nothing to solve that issue while in Detroit.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Baez and I can’t wait to see what he does during his time in Detroit. Truthfully, there’s still a few more pieces that the Tigers need in order to really propel forward. Even if Correa/Story/Corey Seager had ended up in Detroit, the Tigers wouldn’t be able to “call it a day” and hope for the best. There still would have been more work to be done, and that’s where Rodriguez comes in.

Eduardo Rodriguez

Age: 28

Position: Left-handed starting pitcher

Contract: Five years, $77 million

Best-case scenario

No free agent on the market will experience a greater culture shock than Rodriguez heading to Motown. He’s going from a very hitter-friendly ballpark to one of the most pitcher-friendly. Not only that, but he’s going from the best division in all of baseball to arguably the worst.

Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez gestures to the Houston Astros during the seventh inning in Game 3 of baseball's American League Championship Series Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Here’s how his numbers stacked up against the Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees last season:

  • Yankees: 5 games, 23 innings pitched, 2-0 record, 3.13 ERA, 20 hits allowed, 32 strikeouts, 5 walks
  • Rays: 4 G, 21 IP, 1-1, 4.71 ERA, 21 H, 20 K, 6 BB
  • Blue Jays: 3 G, 14.1 IP, 1-2, 8.16 ERA, 21 H, 20 K, 6 BB

Those three teams had a combined 283 wins, and all made the playoffs last season, with the exception of Toronto, which finished one game back of the second wildcard team.

In fact, Rodriguez has spent his entire career in the AL East, as he was traded from the Orioles and made his Major League debut with the Red Sox in 2014. Now that he’s in the AL Central, his numbers are likely to improve. Rodriguez had one appearance each against the Tigers, Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Guardians last year, and won them all, allowing a combined 15 hits while striking out 17 batters through 17 innings.

Now that Tigers have elected to non-tender Matthew Boyd, he and his replacement (Rodriguez) have quite a lot in common. It’s obvious at first glance, as they’re both left-handed pitchers, but they both rely on pitching with finesse. Rodriguez’s fastball won’t touch past 94 mph, and the same can be said for Boyd. They rely on their ability to locate pitches and get guys swinging and missing at off-speed stuff. Rodriguez’s go-to pitch is his change-up, but he also likes to mix in a lot of back-door sliders for his strikeout pitch.

He’ll be at the helm of a young, hyped-up pitching staff between Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and Spencer Turnbull (who won’t return until 2023 after having Tommy John surgery last season). While Detroit is likely to grab another starter, Rodriguez will be an innings eater who racks up strikeouts. It’s also worth mentioning the impact that pitching coach Chris Fetter will have on Rodriguez, as he already has proved to be a vital asset to the development of the starting rotation.

In a nutshell

Rodriguez’s signing is a steal as Detroit locks up the youngest available free agent starter on the market. Not only was 2019 his best season, but he also led the league in games started with 34. Rodriguez is dependable, consistent and could pitch even better now that he’s out of the AL East.

While he missed all of 2020 with a heart condition, he came back in 2021 with similar numbers and the consistency to take the bump every fifth day. Rodriguez fills the hole left by Boyd well, and is a major addition to help give the Tigers the edge over their competition and punch their way into the postseason.

Worst-case scenario

The Tigers’ inability to provide Rodriguez legitimate run support spoils any hope of success. Here are Rodriguez’s numbers from 2021 when the Red Sox scored between 0-2 runs: 0-6, 10.13 ERA, 26.2 IP, 30 ER, 26 K

Those are pretty glaring numbers.

Considering the Red Sox were among the top five in the league for most runs scored, that small sample size could foreshadow similar and consistent production in Detroit. The Tigers averaged 4.3 runs per game last season, which was tied for 22nd in the league. On the other hand, Rodriguez has great numbers when he’s backed up offensively. Here are Rodriguez’s numbers when the Red Sox scored three or more runs last year: 12-2, 3.71 ERA, 130 IP, 53 ER, 148 K

Those numbers look like a manager’s dream, but at the same time, Detroit’s 2021 lineup is peanuts compared to Boston’s. Hopefully the Tigers’s offense ticks in a positive direction, which is likely the case with the addition of Baez, Greene and Torkelson.

In terms of the worst-case scenario, Rodriguez may end up being average, at-best. His 2019 and 2021 seasons have been the best seasons of his career, and he missed all of 2020 with a heart condition, but who is to say that he’s going to be an All-Star-caliber pitcher in Detroit? Just look at the last pitcher the Tigers signed for a multi-year deal.

Before the Tigers added Jordan Zimmermann on a five-year, $110 million dollar contract in 2016, he was a menace for the Washington Nationals. He had three consecutive seasons with fewer than 10 losses, was a two-time All-Star and had a 3.32 ERA in his seven-year career with the Nationals. As soon as he got to Detroit, he was a completely different pitcher. He was plagued by injuries and never returned to his old form.

I’m not saying Rodriguez is bound to take the same route, but for five years and $77 million, you’d better hope for several prime seasons from the lefty.

In a nutshell

Rodriguez doesn’t propel forward, he remains somewhat stagnant. There’s no drastic change coming out of the AL East and jumping into the Central. It doesn’t appear Rodriguez will get worse in his time with the Tigers, but you never know -- just look at what happened with Zimmermann.

Both Rodriguez and Baez are great additions to the team, and I can’t wait to see what kind of production they’ll bring to the table. Are they the final puzzle pieces to resolve a years-long rebuild and turn the team around? Only time will tell, especially if this lockout ever comes to an end.

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