Wojo: Tigers finally get their star shortstop, at a price worth paying

Detroit News

Detroit — The Tigers weren’t kidding when they said they’d be aggressive this offseason. They also weren’t kidding when Al Avila said he would avoid the “drunken sailor” approach to spending.

The sobering reality for some is, the Tigers didn’t land the biggest free-agent shortstop prize. The important reality is, they got much, much better for much, much less cost Tuesday by signing Javier Baez, who’s dynamic in the field and has pop in the bat.

Chris Ilitch said he’d spend and he did, as we figured he would. If you want to quibble with the quantity, feel free. It’s hard to quibble with the quality, as the Tigers addressed one gigantic weakness at shortstop, getting Baez for $140 million over six years. They already signed lefthanded pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez for $77 million over five years and traded for two-time Gold Glove catcher Tucker Barnhart, paying him $7.5 million for one season, with the possibility of more. An MLB lockout looms at midnight Wednesday so there was some urgency to these deals, and the Tigers managed to be prudent and proactive at the same time.

Everyone wanted Astros star Carlos Correa, who’s still waiting for someone to fulfill his 10-year, $350 million dream. The Tigers waited as long as they could. A.J. Hinch did some gentle prodding of the guy he once managed to a World Series championship, but the Tigers know better than anyone how the exhilaration of an enormous signing can fade as the years unfold.

If Baez got 50% of the money Correa might land, it’s a steal. Because he’s much more than 50% of Correa as a player, and less injury-prone. Baez, who turns 29 Wednesday, has played at least 138 games in each of his six full seasons. Correa, 27, has done it twice in his six full seasons.

Lots of cash, lots of flash

Baez is one of the best defensive shortstops in the game, both flashy and efficient (as is Correa). Building a team around a batch of young pitchers, the Tigers absolutely had to improve their defense, and they significantly upgraded at shortstop and catcher.

Baez comes with a little baggage but at least it’s less-expensive baggage. He strikes out a lot, the most in the majors. He doesn’t walk a lot. He got into an unnecessary spat with booing Mets fans last season and flashed a thumbs-down sign when he crossed home plate after hitting a home run.

Bad look: The thumbs down.

Good look: It was a home run. He later apologized, but he certainly doesn’t mind expressing himself.

Baez has a strong arm and substantial power — 31 home runs, 87 RBIs, .265 batting average and .813 OPS with the Cubs and Mets last season. After the Mets acquired him from the Cubs, he hit .299 with an .886 OPS.

He is strikeout-prone, as noted, and we’ll see if the Tigers’ coaching staff can work on that. But he’s a good baserunner (18 steals in 23 attempts last season) and finished second in the NL MVP voting with the Cubs in 2018 when he had 34 home runs and a league-leading 111 RBIs. His Tigers contract has an opt-out after two years, so he’s incentivized to produce. His presence buys time while the Tigers await the arrival of their own big bats in youngsters Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson.

At the news conference introducing Rodriguez last week, the talk shifted quickly from what was spent to what still can be spent. Ilitch and Avila made no big promises and cautioned that one $300 million signing might not be the answer. They could be wrong, if Correa continues to be among the best in baseball somewhere else.

But they should be right from this standpoint — they didn’t hamper their spending flexibility for years and years.

“The resources are going to be there,” Ilitch said last week. “I know Al, A.J. and myself are very aligned on making sure that when we talk about new contracts through free agency, or even trades, we need to be mindful. 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.”

More than a consolation prize

If you view Baez as just a consolation prize, that’s silly considering how bad the Tigers have been the past five years of an agonizing rebuild. Last season their payroll was around $86 million. It’s now approximately $114 million with room to rise.

Some fans craved a return of Justin Verlander, but he went back to Houston for one year at $25 million. Many understandably craved Correa, and I think he was worth a big-money gamble. But taking less risk for less cost and potentially getting a comparable player is what the Tigers mean by “sustainable.”

They landed one of the top free agents at a position they’d been awful for years. The Tigers posted the second-lowest offensive production in the majors at shortstop last season. (Only the Pirates were worse). It often was manned by Niko Goodrum, who has been released.

Defense is where the Tigers needed help for Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning and newly acquired Rodriguez. A quick dive into advanced metrics, via Statcast, shows since 2018, Baez ranks ninth out of 4,053 players in defensive runs saved.

Baseball’s spending frenzy exploded the past few days, which perhaps bodes well for the players in upcoming negotiations. The sport must be financially healthy if 37-year-old Max Scherzer, as brilliant as he is, signs a three-year deal with the Mets averaging a record $43 million. Even the thrifty Tampa Bay Rays signed their 20-year-old star shortstop Wander Franco to an 11-year, $182 million contract.

The labor situation obviously spurred a lot of the deals. What spurred the Tigers was their apparent upward trajectory, going 77-85 last season. Hinch has proven to be an ideal fit and the kids are coming as early as next season.

The Tigers might not even be done because they need bullpen arms and perhaps another starter. They could’ve stood pat and hoped shortstop Ryan Kreidler, 24, was ready, but they had to do something to reward the fans for their patience.

Ilitch said the team would have an “open mind” when it came to spending. An open mind doesn’t necessarily mean a wide-open checkbook, but it meant plenty for the Tigers to finally address a gaping, gnawing need.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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