Why did Detroit Tigers get Javier Baez? Christopher Ilitch learned from his dad’s mistakes

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Tigers have a new shortstop — Javier Baez.

But some fans are disappointed — and others are freaking out — because it’s not the right shortstop. Because it’s not the most expensive shortstop. Because it’s not Carlos Correa, the one almost everyone wanted, the one who seemed so perfect and everybody was hoping for.

And besides, it’s not what Mike Ilitch would have done, back in the glory days.

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I have no doubt that that Mike Ilitch, the former Tigers owner, would have signed Correa to a massive free-agent deal. Ilitch loved superstars. He loved big names; and my guts says that Mr. I would have signed Correa to a 11-year, $400 million deal — yes, he would have overpaid, bless his heart; and the contract would have been for more years than necessary.

Just like the contract that Mike Ilitch once gave Miguel Cabrera.

Fans would be thrilled, ticket sales would surge, optimism would rise and the Tigers would have a shiny new toy.

That doesn’t make it smart nor prudent over the long term. The Mike Ilitch model helped put the Tigers into this long, painful rebuild.

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But Christopher Ilitch, Mike’s son and the current Tigers owner, has learned from his father’s mistakes. Instead of spending “drunken sailor money” on Correa, the Tigers will get Baez with a reasonable, six-year $140 million contract with an opt out after two years.

The Tigers got someone who will upgrade their defense significantly at shortstop (admittedly, that started at a pretty low bar), gives the offense some pop, brings some more speed to the lineup and did not break the bank.

Yes, he has flaws. He rarely walks and he’s gonna strike out a ton.

But his contract shouldn’t hamstring the organization for 10 years and prevent the Tigers from filling other needs.

And now, the Tigers have a legit shot at fighting for a wild card spot next fall.

“Our goal is not to be good one time but to be good over the course of time,” Christopher Ilitch said recently. “We really are shooting for sustainable success and competitive baseball over time.”

Mike Ilitch never talked like that.

Then again, he never won a World Series, either.

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One player does not a team make

Many fans say the Tigers went cheap.

But the problem with spending $300 million or more on one player is that it is not a sustainable model.

The Tigers are not the New York Yankees or the Los Angeles Dodgers. But Mike Ilitch  didn’t realize that during the push for a championship from 2006 until about 2016. But his son is running this franchise like it’s a mid-market team. He is spending money, just not the same way that his father did.

Does signing a shortstop to a huge, change everything?

You be the judge.

Francisco Lindor signed 10-year, $341 million deal with New York Mets in 2020. Did that turn them into World Series champs? No, not yet. The Mets finished 77-85 (same record as the Tigers last year), 11½ games behind the Atlanta Braves.

The San Diego Padres signed Fernando Tatis Jr. to $340 million, 14-year contract in February. And the Padres finished with a 79-83 record.

Again, it’s early, but one high priced free-agent signing does not guarantee success.

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We’ve been down this road before

Think back to 2014.

Mike Ilitch gave Cabrera a 10-year extension worth $292 million.

At that time, it didn’t make a lot of sense because the Tigers still had Cabrera under contract for two more seasons at $22 million per season. But Ilitch spent anyway, handing out a contract that continues to be an albatross on this organization.

He wanted to make sure that Cabrera retired as a Tiger.

Sure, the Tigers got a nice bump and a wonderful story line last summer, when Cabrera was chasing 500 home runs.

And that feel-good story will continue next summer when Cabrera is chasing 3,000 hits.

Assuming, of course, there is a season.

But there is a big problem with long-term deals.

[ ‘I’m not mad but I’m pretty mad’: Tigers fans like, but don’t love, Javy Baez deal ]

The Tigers are scheduled to pay Cabrera $32 million next season and again in 2023. Even though Cabrera, who will turn 39 in April, isn’t nearly the same physically and is no longer the same threat at the plate.

Christopher Ilitch learned a lesson: Don’t sink all your money into one player without filling your other needs.

Diversify your assets

When building a roster, it is important to have money to react to injuries and fill holes to replace players who don’t pan out.

And that is what they have done this winter.

The Tigers were hoping to have a pitching rotation in 2022 that included Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull.

But both were injured last summer.

That forced the Tigers to sign starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez for $77 million.

In addition, the Tigers were hoping to have Jake Rogers and Eric Haase handle their catching duties.

Then, Rogers was injured and it forced Avila to trade for Tucker Barnhart, a two-time Gold Glove winner. The Tigers picked up Barnhart’s $7.5 million team option for the final year of his contract.

I don’t believe the Tigers are done . And I don’t believe they are done building this roster.

Two years from now, the Tigers will get out from under the Cabrera deal.

Around that time, all these Tigers youngsters — Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson — should be hitting their stride.

Fans freak out and think about extremes: the team is either spending or going cheap.

But maybe, think of it this way: this is just another step in the build.

They got their shortstop.

Perhaps for two years. Perhaps for six.

And they can build even more, in a significant way, when Cabrera’s money comes off the books.

That’s how you sustain it. Having money to fill the holes.

As Christopher Ilitch has learned, spending it all on one guy just doesn’t work.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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