The Detroit Tigers needed to answer a question.
Would the franchise spend a lot — at least $340 million over at least 10 years — for two-time All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa, or would they pick a lesser commitment — six years, $140 million — for two-time All-Star shortstop Javier Baez? Either would make the team better and give the organization a chance to make the postseason for the first time since 2014.
The answer, at least to the Tigers, was simple.
In early October, here’s what Tigers general manager Al Avila said: “It’s more broad-based than that. One player is not going to determine everything. I think we have several needs, and we’ll tackle the offseason looking at everything that would be at our disposal as far as what players we can acquire.”
Owner Christopher Ilitch, on Nov. 22: “Our goal is not to be good one time but to be good over the course of time. We really are shooting for sustainable success and competitive baseball over time. We’re going to be mindful of that as we look at contracts going forward.”
Avila, again, on Nov. 22: “Not one player is going to make us a winner. We have to make sure we can field a good 26-man roster. It’s going to be a measured process. We’re going to be very careful in how we do it.”
That’s why the Tigers signed Baez to a six-year, $140 million contract Tuesday, before Wednesday’s 11:59 p.m. expiration of baseball’s collective bargaining agreement, as teams brace for a lockout and a transaction freeze.
Baez’s presence instantly upgrades the Tigers’ offense and defense, as well as giving the team a boost on the bases. He turns 29 Wednesday and, if he cuts down his strikeouts, has MVP potential. Remember, Baez won the World Series in 2016, finished second in National League MVP voting in 2018 and earned a Gold Glove at shortstop in 2020.
Whether fans think Ilitch is cheap or not, the Tigers never planned to sign one player for more than $300 million. And the organization never gave any indication that they were willing to do so. Instead, the Tigers deferred to their idea of sustainable success.
By bringing Baez to Detroit, the Tigers avoided a 10-year contract and think they will steer clear of another long, excruciating rebuild in the future. So far, the Tigers have signed Baez for $140 million and left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez for $77 million. They also traded for catcher Tucker Barnhart and picked up his $7.5 million team option.
The three transactions total $224.5 million in payroll commitments.
Yes, there was the Nov. 18 bunch date between Correa and Tigers manager AJ Hinch at a Houston restaurant. And yes, the Tigers pegged Correa as their favorite shortstop on the market and made an offer. (Who wouldn’t?)
But it’s also important to acknowledge that Hinch is Correa’s former manager and a trusted friend. Hinch made sure to bring a gift for Correa’s baby. Correa and his wife, Daniella, are expecting their first child soon.
“I had a ham and cheese omelet,” Hinch said Nov. 22. “I didn’t realize it was as big a deal as it was.”
That specific interaction — which wasn’t the first between Correa and Hinch this offseason — was more than a recruiting trip. It was personal.
On the business end, however, the Tigers, in the end, didn’t want to meet Correa’s asking price.
They could have waited in hopes of Correa’s market crumbling after the new CBA is in place, considering Correa seems unlikely to sign before Wednesday’s expiration. But the timetable for an agreement on the new CBA is unclear. Even if the Tigers stood pat, they might have ended up in a bidding war with higher-market teams such as the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers.
Money talks, and that would have left the Tigers with nothing.
ILITCH THE OWNER: Leaders discuss spending $300 million on one player in free agency
Still, what about everyone else?
Couldn’t the Tigers have signed Corey Seager, Marcus Semien or Trevor Story, the other three premier shortstops on the free-agent market? After all, the Tigers were active in contract discussions with all five shortstops.
Well, the Texas Rangers, a 102-loss team last season, shocked the industry by committing a whopping $561.2 million to free agents so far this offseason, including $175 million to Semien for seven years and $325 million to Seager for 10 years.
The Tigers were unwilling to go past six years for Semien, who turned 31 in September, and they wouldn’t commit more than $300 million for Seager. As for Story, he wasn’t interested in the contract structure proposed by the Tigers and could wait until the new CBA to sign his deal.
Without spending $300 million, the Tigers really had no choice in their pursuit of a top-tier shortstop.
It was Baez or (probably) nothing.