DETROIT (AP) — Javier Báez hopes he's a big part of a turnaround with the Detroit Tigers, too.
Báez celebrated his 29th birthday Wednesday by signing a $140 million, six-year contact to play shortstop for the revitalized Tigers.
“This is a turning point for the Tigers undoubtedly, signing a player like Javy. I think sends a message to the baseball world, to our fans, that the Tigers are here to compete," CEO Christopher Ilitch said.
Báez said the prime attractions were playing with Tigers star Miguel Cabrera and being part of a team possibly on the cusp of rising from the far back, much like the Chicago Cubs did in his early seasons before winning the 2016 World Series.
“I like to be in this position,” Báez said. “I like to be the leader that teaches everything to guys that got questions. I like to be the guy that everyone follows.”
The two-time All-Star provides Detroit a significant upgrade at shortstop. Niko Goodrum, Zack Short, Willi Castro and Harold Castro all played there for the Tigers last season.
Báez is both flashy and effective with his glove, winning a Gold Glove in 2020. He batted a combined .265 with 31 homers and 87 RBIs this year for the New York Mets and Cubs, who traded him July 30. He also led the National League with 184 strikeouts, and stole 18 bases in 23 attempts.
What does Báez believe is the most important ingredient he brings to Detroit?
“I think my energy,” he said, flashing a wide smile on the Zoom call and wearing a Tigers cap. “I think we’re obviously going to have more fans that want to come to see me play, and obviously the Tigers. I have a huge family that follow me everywhere."
“So, you’re going to have new fans and we’re going to have magic. We’re going to have magic on the field. I want to go out there, have fun, and compete," he said.
His nickname in Spanish — “El Mago" — translates to “The Magician."
“He plays with passion,” Tigers general manager Alex Avila said. “He’s an electrifying player.”
The versatile right-handed hitter has become a dependable power source and run-producer. Báez, in baseball’s last three full seasons (2018, 2019 and 2021), averaged over 31 homers and 94 RBIs.
“He’s a perfect fit for us,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “Javy brings a lot to a team. He’s been on a World Series team and seen it go from maybe an immature team, to a mature team, to winning the World Series. He’s got an incredible impact on a team. I wanted him to know (during negotiations) how excited I was and how good that I felt that I was going to write his name in the lineup every day at the shortstop position, and he was going to help us win."
“The defense, the flair, the power that he brings," Avila said. "But his competitive character is remarkable. He has a short memory and all he cares about is winning today’s game.”
Avila, who met with Báez and his wife and two sons in Miami and conversed in Spanish, said he knew Báez was right for his team.
“Javy was excited to come to Detroit and be part of this renaissance,” said Avila, adding that Báez discussed the Cubs’ turnaround.
The Tigers finished 77-85 in 2021 after going 23-35 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and 47-114 in 2019. Ilitch pledged to take a serious plunge into free agency this offseason for the first time in several years.
Detroit hasn’t posted a winning record since going 86-75 in 2016.
The Tigers recently signed free agent pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez and got two-time Gold Glove catcher Tucker Barnhart in a trade with Cincinnati.
“We went through some tough times and had some tough things that we had to do,” said Avila. “So, this is obviously the good part, where you get to build it back up. ... Obviously, we’re not happy yet, we’re not satisfied yet until we get to the World Series and win it.
“Now, we can plan on bobblehead nights for guys like Javy Báez and Rodriguez as opposed to getting calls from the business side: ‘Can we do this for this guy or is he going to be around?’" he said.
Signing Baez before midnight Wednesday was important, with the labor situation in Major League Baseball and a possible lockout looming.
“I can’t say that we made an adjustment,” said Avila, adding that he spoke more with Báez than any other free agent. “It all came to fruition at the end. It was our preference to make a deal sooner than later, but I can’t say we did it because we felt we had to do it. If it didn’t come to this, we would’ve waited. Javy said if he didn’t feel the deal was good for him, he would’ve waited.”
Said Báez: “It was 50-50. We didn’t know what was going to happen when the deadline comes. I was just making sure I wanted to be with one of the best teams."
“Having Miggy here, he’s one of the best hitters in baseball. So, with the other young talent they have coming up, we’ve got a challenge to make a World Series. And that’s what we’re here for,” he said.
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Steve Kornacki, The Associated Press