Can Javier Baez push Detroit Tigers into postseason? Here’s potential Opening Day roster

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Tigers have their shortstop of the future.

Among the five top-tier shortstops on the free-agent market, it’s not fan-favorite Carlos Correa, nor is it Corey Seager, Marcus Semien or Trevor Story. Two hours into Tuesday, as most of the Tigers fan base slept, general manager Al Avila struck an agreement with Javier Baez on a six-year, $140 million contract.

Baez, who turned 29 on Wednesday, has an opt-out after the second year.

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“We have to set our bar extremely high,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said in early October, after his first season as the team’s manager. “You should set out every year to make the playoffs. … We want to have a winning season, and we want that winning season to be rewarded with a playoff berth.

“By the way, just because you get to the playoffs doesn’t mean you’re satisfied at that point. I like where our heads are at. I like that we stay grounded with what we’re doing. Clearly, to be a winning team that we talk about, you have to have a winning record. We don’t have that yet.”

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Before the Tigers got their guy, a few dominoes fell first. The Texas Rangers have spent an unbelievable amount of money ($561.2 million) on free agents so far, including $175 million to Semien over seven years and $325 million to Seager over 10 years.

While all of this happened, teams have been preparing for the likelihood of a lockout by MLB owners — which would freeze transactions — upon the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement. The CBA expires at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.

From the beginning of the offseason, the Tigers refused to spend $300 million for one player, which took them out of the Seager sweepstakes. Correa, by the way, should get at least $340 million, if not more, based on Seager’s deal.

The Tigers also didn’t offer Semien anything more than a six-year deal. They were not in the running for Story because he did not prefer the structure of their contract proposal.

Correa and Story remain unsigned.

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Playoff-bound Tigers?

After three additions, the Tigers are in a much better spot than they were exiting the 2021 season, which featured a 77-85 record — the franchise’s best results since 2016 — and a third-place finish in the American League Central.

The Tigers haven’t made the postseason since 2014.

“The next goal is to get above .500,” Hinch said in October. “And then you go as far above .500 as needed to get to the playoffs. You have to be above .500 to make the playoffs nowadays. I always talk about the race to 90 wins. And 90 wins wouldn’t have been good enough this year.

“Seeing this thirst for winning and this rebirth for doing things that a winning culture does lends itself to looking toward .500 and above. That’s the next plateau.”

With Baez in the fold, here’s how the Opening Day lineup could shape up: Left fielder Akil Baddoo, center fielder Riley Greene, right fielder Robbie Grossman, first baseman Spencer Torkelson, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, shortstop Javier Baez, third baseman Jeimer Candelario, catcher Tucker Barnhart and designated hitter Miguel Cabrera, with Eduardo Rodriguez, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning anchoring the starting rotation.

Torkelson and Greene are ranked as baseball’s Nos. 4 and 7 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline, and will get every chance to make the Opening Day roster out of spring training. (They are ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the Tigers’ farm system.) Both former first-round draft picks reached Triple-A Toledo last season.

Even if one or both starts the year in Toledo, it won’t be long until they’re in the big leagues together.

The Tigers began improving their roster one day after the World Series ended, trading with the Cincinnati Reds to acquire Barnhart in exchange for infield prospect Nick Quintana. The Tigers picked up Barnhart’s $7.5 million team option for 2022 and will consider a contract extension.

Twelve days later, the Tigers agreed to a five-year, $77 million contract with Rodriguez, a left-handed starter who pitched his first six MLB seasons for the Boston Red Sox. Rodriguez, a 2018 World Series champion, has 11 games of postseason experience and finished sixth in 2019 AL Cy Young voting.

“By trading for Barnhart and signing Eduardo, that in itself is a recruiting tool,” Avila said in November. “It shows other players that we’re here for real. We’re trying to win and trying to bring in the best players and build a winning franchise. Not to mention, I have the best manager in baseball. That’s a great recruiting tool.”

In 2018, Baez finished second in National League MVP voting. That year, he hit .290 with 34 homers, 111 RBIs, 29 walks, 167 strikeouts and 21 stolen bases. He had a .881 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Baez made his first All-Star Game in 2018, then his second in 2019. He won his first Gold Glove at shortstop in 2020.

Spanning 36 playoff games, Baez has hit .221 (27-for-122) with five homers, 14 RBIs, five walks and 41 strikeouts. Two years before Rodriguez won his title with the Red Sox, Baez — named NLCS MVP — secured the 2016 World Series with the Chicago Cubs. (At last year’s trade deadline, the Cubs traded Baez to the New York Mets for prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong.)

Hinch’s leadership helped convince Baez to sign with the Tigers, as did the promise of being a cornerstone player for a young team at the most important position on the field. Still, the Tigers are not a finished product yet, and they shouldn’t think Baez automatically qualifies them for the playoffs.

But it’s another step in the right direction.

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Tigers’ 2022 Opening Day roster prediction

Catcher: Tucker Barnhart.

First base: Spencer Torkelson.

Second base: Jonathan Schoop.

Shortstop: Javier Baez.

Third base: Jeimer Candelario.

Left field: Akil Baddoo.

Center field: Riley Greene.

Right field: Robbie Grossman.

Designed hitter: Miguel Cabrera.

Bench: Eric Haase, Harold Castro, Isaac Paredes, Derek Hill.

Starting pitchers: Eduardo Rodriguez, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, free agent.

Bullpen: Gregory Soto, Jose Cisnero, Michael Fulmer, Kyle Funkhouser, Alex Lange, Joe Jimenez, Tyler Alexander, Jason Foley.

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