Detroit Pulls a Shortstop Out of Its Hat by Ben Clemens November 30, 2021 There’s something satisfying about the perfect trip to the grocery store. If you’re anything like me, you know what I’m talking about: you have a list of a ton of things you can’t wait to eat, you cross each of them off as you throw them in your cart, and by the time you reach the cash register, you can almost taste the delicious meals you’ll be eating the rest of the week. Why bring this up now? Because that’s how I imagine Al Avila feels after signing Javier Báez, with the Tigers inking the ex-Cubs shortstop to a six-year, $140 million deal last night, as Jon Morosi first reported. Front-line starter. Shortstop. Catcher. The Tigers came into this offseason looking to place star veterans around their burgeoning youth movement, and with Báez in tow, they’ve now landed a top hitter to go with a top pitcher, just like they planned. Báez played second base after his trade to New York last season, but he’s a natural fit at shortstop. He’s a plus defender with a knack for making spectacular plays, but even without those flourishes, he’d be an asset in the field, with a huge arm and solid range and instincts. Of the marquee shortstops in this class, Báez and Carlos Correa are first and second, and no one else is in the same stratosphere. That’s a key qualification, because the Tigers were in the lower half of the league when it comes to infield defense last year, and they’re breaking in a stableful of young pitchers. Be honest: you can already picture the reactions in your head. Báez makes some stumbling pirouette to spin a grounder from straw into a double play, and Casey Mize claps giddily and disbelievingly from the mound. Tarik Skubal jabs his arms into the air triumphantly after Báez makes a circus catch over his shoulder in shallow left. The possibilities are endless, and the highlight reels will be amazing. If I were a Tigers fan, that alone would be worth the price of admission. Baseball lasts more than six months every year. You’re going to watch the eight regulars on your chosen team so often. Having one of them turn routine plays into little moments of grace every few days is a gift that keeps on giving. At the plate… well, look, they can’t all be winners. Despite prodigious power, Báez has been a feast-or-famine player at the plate his entire career, and the strikeouts and fallow stretches add up. He’s a career 103 wRC+ player despite hot streaks that rival anyone in the game; strike out 30% of the time while walking at a 5% clip, and offense won’t ever come easy. Projection systems are down on Báez’s long-term offensive value, though to different extents. Steamer projects him for a .242/.289/.444 line next year, which is good for a 95 wRC+. ZiPS has a higher opinion of Báez by a fair margin, but still thinks he’ll be OBP-challenged. It also thinks he’ll age fairly well, which makes the deal look better for Detroit than you might first expect: ZiPS Projection – Javier Báez Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB OPS+ DR WAR 2022 .261 .304 .468 536 79 140 27 3 26 80 26 17 107 2 3.1 2023 .264 .307 .489 503 75 133 27 4 26 79 25 15 113 1 3.3 2024 .263 .306 .484 486 72 128 26 3 25 75 24 14 112 1 2.9 2025 .263 .307 .475 467 68 123 24 3 23 71 24 12 110 0 2.6 2026 .261 .304 .463 445 63 116 21 3 21 65 23 10 106 -2 2.1 Let’s be honest with each other: $140 million is a lot of money for a hitter who might end up with a two-handle OBP next year. The shortstop market has been downright scalding so far this offseason, with each of the three top guys to sign so far exceeding their crowdsourced projections in both AAV and years, and they’ve all ended up with at least $50 million more in guaranteed money than the projections. That appears to be the cost of doing business this year; between the Rangers and Tigers, non-contending teams looking to jump start their rebuilds have created a huge amount of demand for a fixed number of talented shortstops. In that context, Báez’s deal looks rich: ZiPS would have given him five years and $107 million, and it’s the high man on his future value. Is Báez a good use of resources even given that strong demand? I think so, because Detroit is perfectly situated to add an excellent shortstop, whatever the cost. You can’t make a baseball team out of surplus value, and the Tigers are already awash in it. Young players get paid a steep discount to the value they produce on the field, and the Tigers have a wave of talented youngsters reaching the majors. Almost no matter what Avila and the front office do, they won’t be hurting for talent per dollar spent. Instead, the bottleneck is raw production. As constituted at the end of last year, the Tigers didn’t have the horses to compete for a playoff spot. By adding Eduardo Rodriguez, Tucker Barnhart, and Báez, they’ve upgraded spots that were virtual blanks before into above-average players, which was of utmost importance to them coming into this offseason. If they spent $10 million or $20 million too much on Báez, fine! Trevor Story and Correa, the two remaining top-flight shortstops, might sign rich deals as well, and ending the offseason with no upgrade at the deepest offensive position would be a disaster. I don’t think the Tigers are a playoff team even with these upgrades, but they’ve given themselves more favorable odds. Without upgrading, it almost wouldn’t matter if a few of their young pitchers took a step forward this season or Spencer Torkelson went 2001 Albert Pujols on the league; the offense and pitching depth just wouldn’t be there. Adding wins puts the team in a better position to take advantage of any positive surprises, and given the composition of the AL Central, playoff contention might be closer than it appears. The Tigers shouldn’t be done with their offseason. They still need pitching depth, particularly if they non-tender Matthew Boyd. I think they could use a fourth outfielder, more as an insurance policy than anything else. They can be more bargain-focused on those fronts, though, because there are plenty of fourth outfielders and fifth starters, but only a few 3-plus WAR shortstops. But I like this deal for them, even if Báez’s contract is higher than I expected, because they correctly identified that talent, not money, was the scarce resource for them this offseason. The highlight-reel defense certainly doesn’t hurt, either.