Inside Detroit Tigers’ pursuit of Javier Baez, ‘their top target the whole way’

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila picked up his phone. It was Nov. 3.

Players had just officially become free agents and teams could contact player representatives. Before calling anyone else, Avila dialed the number for Nick Chanock, senior vice president of baseball at Wasserman Media Group.

Chanock is Javier Baez’s agent.

“He was their top target the whole way,” Chanock said.

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The Tigers reportedly could have traded for Baez in 2017 as part of a three-player offer from the Chicago Cubs. Four years later, as Baez reached free agency, Avila wanted to sign him as the starting shortstop to push his franchise into the postseason.

Avila, owner Christopher Ilitch and manager AJ Hinch viewed Baez — nicknamed “El Mago,” which translates to “The Magician” — as the perfect fit at the perfect price. The Tigers maintained frequent discussions with Baez’s agent in the following weeks and were prepared to work quickly.

“There were a lot of conversations back and forth, negotiations back and forth,” Avila said. “One thing that we wanted to know for sure, before we got really deeper into this, is that Javy wanted to come to Detroit and be part of this renaissance and be a big, key part of it.”

The Tigers made a franchise-altering decision by signing Baez to a six-year, $140 million contract. Everything came together in the late hours Nov. 29, as Avila called Ilitch to deliver the news of an agreement. Avila continued making phone calls and didn’t sleep until 3:45 a.m. Nov. 30.

There were undisclosed setbacks toward the end of the process, but Baez eventually arrived in Lakeland, Florida, for his physical Dec. 1. It was his 29th birthday, and after passing his medical exams, he celebrated by putting pen to paper. Roughly seven hours later, MLB locked out the players upon the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement.

“As this unfolded, these little details at the end that are not little to team or agent, I wanted to fast-forward and get it done,” Hinch said. “When I talked to Javy that night, really late in Puerto Rico, I just wanted him to know how excited I was and how good I felt that I was going to write his name in the lineup every day at the shortstop position. He is going to help us win.”

Baez is a Gold Glove-winning defender, a powerful bat (accompanied by poor plate discipline), an impactful basestealer, a postseason vet — 36 games, including a 2016 World Series championship — and wears his emotions on his sleeve.

He is set to earn $20 million in 2022, $22 million in 2023, $25 million in 2024, $25 million in 2025, $24 million in 2026 and $24 million in 2027. He also has most of the same award bonuses as Miguel Cabrera, a 38-year-old with a Hall of Fame résumé. There’s an opt-out after the 2023 campaign. If what the Tigers are preaching doesn’t work out, he can test the market again ahead of his age-31 season.

But Baez has bought in.

He believes the Tigers will become winners.

“Javier had seen firsthand when he was one of the young guys coming up in the Cubs organization, where they were selling the future,” Chanock said. “He was one of the guys of the future. And KB (Kris Bryant) won the 2016 MVP, and Javier became the runner up in the 2018 MVP. The guys that they developed became great players. All-Star, MVP-caliber players. As a result, the Cubs won the World Series.”

The beginning of Baez-to-Detroit took place in New York, when Chanock sat down with the two-time All-Star to discuss his options as an impending free agent. Baez appeared surprised when Chanock pinpointed the Tigers as one of the top destinations.

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After Chanock made his case, Baez saw Detroit’s resemblance to his years in Chicago: A World Series-winning manager, a general manager with a long-term plan, an owner willing to pay for that plan and young talent. With that in mind, Baez thinks there could be another championship ring on his finger in the coming years.

“I wanted to be with one of the best teams,” Baez said. “Having Miggy here, he’s one of the best hitters in baseball. With all the young talent we have coming up, I think we have a pretty good chance to make the World Series.

“That’s what we’re here for.”

‘We want you to be you’

Ten days before the agreement, Avila, Hinch and assistant general manager Sam Menzin strolled into The Ritz-Carlton in Bal Harbour, roughly 15 miles northeast of downtown Miami.

The Tigers pitched their vision for the future to Baez and Chanock on Nov. 19, from aiming for the playoffs in the upcoming season to spending more in free agency as part of a measured process. At times, Avila and Baez conversed in Spanish. Based on all the discussions, Chanock put his faith in the Tigers’ plan and ownership commitment to building a sustainable winner.

So did Baez.

“AJ and Al sat down, looked across the table and said, ‘We want you to be you,’” Chanock said. “That meant a lot to us, because that’s when Javy is at his best.

“We could see that blueprint. And then Javy heard it from Al and AJ and Sam when we met. I had always seen what their vision was, and that’s why I thought it was a good place for Javy. But now he could really see it, too.”

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Baez with the Tigers in 2022 is like Jon Lester with the Cubs in 2015. When Lester signed a six-year, $155 million contract ahead of the 2015 season, the Cubs were ready to start winning but needed a boost. Over the 2014-15 seasons, Chicago called up Baez, Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge SolerAddison Russell and Kyle Hendricks for their MLB debuts.

During the 2016 World Series run, Baez and Lester were National League Championship Series co-MVPs. Baez hit .318 with four doubles and five RBIs in six games against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They were the first players in MLB history to share NLCS MVP honors.

“He’s a perfect fit for us,” Hinch said. “Javy brings a lot to a team. He’s been on a World Series team before. He’s seen it go from an immature team to a very mature team to winning the World Series to the pressure that comes after winning the World Series. Watching him respond and grow, he’s got an incredible impact.”

Avila recalls watching Baez — an “electrifying player” — compete during his eight-year tenure with the Cubs from 2014-21. The Cubs began another rebuild by trading Baez to the New York Mets at the trade deadline in July 2021.

“I remember when we played them a few years ago in Chicago,” Avila said. “He’s running the bases, killing us and making plays all over the field. I thought, ‘Damn, can we just get that guy out of the game?’ Because he was making the difference on his own. I was just beside myself. I was like, ‘Can we get a guy like that?’

“I feel so blessed right now to get a guy like Baez. When I went on that trip to Chicago, I was just feeling like, ‘Man, I wish I had that guy on my team.’ The passion, the defense, and he’s a very good leader. … He’s the right guy and the right fit here.

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The Tigers are ready to call up first baseman Spencer Torkelson and outfielder Riley Greene for their MLB debuts in 2022, just one season after starting pitchers Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning completed their rookie campaigns. Of those five players, four were former first-round draft picks.

Maybe Baez and Mize will share postseason awards in the future, just like Baez and Lester back in 2016.

“His competitive character is remarkable,” Hinch said. “He has a short memory and all he cares about is winning today’s game.”

The Tigers showed their willingness to increase payroll Nov. 15, when Avila signed left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez to a five-year, $77 million contract. The Tigers also traded for veteran catcher Tucker Barnhart — a two-time Gold Glove winner — on Nov. 3, the first day of the offseasonBaez liked the additions of Rodriguez and Barnhart, but he was even more enamored by the young talent in the organization.

Everything reminded Baez of the Cubs.

“By him saying that,” Avila said, “I knew, ‘OK, this guy really understands where we’re at.'”

To get to this point, the Tigers journeyed through a miserable four-year rebuild.

“They tore it down, picked first in the draft a couple times and were one of the worst teams in the league,” Chanock said. “What they did right was they drafted and developed right. Now they have these enormous prospects on the doorstep, and that’s what attracts someone like Javy Baez.”

Cabrera, who has played for the Tigers since 2008, spoke with Baez a few times. He was supposed to show face at the meeting in Miami. Although the two-time MVP and Triple Crown winner couldn’t make it, he joined via FaceTime to talk about the Tigers with Avila, Hinch and Menzin.

This was important.

Because Cabrera — one of the best Latin players in baseball history — vouched for Detroit and its surrounding area.

Cabrera wanted Baez, who had other teams on his radar, to understand something: Although Detroit isn’t comparable in many ways to Chicago or New York, Baez would be embraced by the fans and have no trouble adjusting to his new life.

“Miggy told him about where we’re at, at this point, and how he can make an impact for us,” Avila said. “Once all that was established, then it was just really grinding out negotiations, going back and forth, and finally it came to fruition and we got the deal done.”

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‘Top priority’

One week before sitting down with Baez in Miami, Avila brought Hinch along to the general manager meetings from Nov. 9-11 at the Omni La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, California. This is where the Tigers publicly displayed their aggressive pursuit for a top-tier shortstop, specifically Baez.

In Carlsbad, Avila met three times with Chanock. They spoke once in Avila’s hotel room and twice at a nearby restaurant. The Tigers would have made a deal at the GM meetings, but Baez wasn’t ready to make a commitment.

“We were very aggressive at the GM meetings,” Avila said. “When I say aggressive, I mean we had multiple meetings every day with different agents and other teams. That got the process started. We met with Nick multiple times, not just once. We probably met with him more than anybody else. That continued after the GM meetings.”

The Tigers reached out to Chanock almost every day for a 20-day period.

“Some teams wanted to go slow,” Chanock said. “Some wanted to go fast. But ultimately, this team really made Javy Baez their top guy, and that was meaningful.”

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There were five premier free-agent shortstops: Baez, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Trevor Story. Over the past month, Hinch and Avila have traveled the country to meet with free agents, so much so that Avila earned Diamond Medallion status with Delta Airlines.

They sat down with Story, but he did not favor the Tigers’ structured contract proposal. Hinch also had his famous Nov. 18 brunch with Correa at the Tiny Boxwoods restaurant in Houston. (Correa is seeking about $340 million over at least 10 years.) The Tigers offered Semien a six-year deal, but he signed with the Texas Rangers for seven years and $175 million. The Rangers — losers of 102 games last season — also added Seager for 10 years and $325 million.

Correa and Story remain unsigned.

The Tigers and Baez’s camp set a Nov. 26 deadline to complete a deal, when Baez returned from a cruise in Mexico. The Tigers made at least four offers throughout their negotiations, but the two sides couldn’t agree by the set deadline.

But there was a collaborative effort to get Baez to the Tigers before the collective bargaining agreement expired at 11:59 p.m. Dec. 1. When the CBA expired, the owners instituted a lockout. Player transactions are frozen until MLB and the MLB Players Association formulate a new labor contract.

“It was our preference to make a deal earlier than later,” Avila said. “But I can’t say we did it because we felt we had to do it. Even Javy mentioned that. If he didn’t feel the deal was good for him, he would have waited. If we didn’t think the deal was good for us, we would have waited. At the end of the day, both parties — player and team — felt this was a good fit, a good deal and fair for both sides. We’re both extremely happy about it, so that’s what made it happen.”

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With time running out, the Tigers met Baez’s demands.

“The Tigers made Javy their top priority,” Chanock said. “They did a great job of selling Javy on the fact that they were building a winner and had the infrastructure and the young players in place to do that. Javy had seen it work firsthand with the Cubs and was a part of the younger wave that won the World Series. We listened to Al and AJ talk about the young players. As we went around the league and asked about what the Tigers had coming, it became clear to us that with their vision and what the team needed, we fit into their plan.

Baez is ready to wear the No. 28 with the Old English D on his chest, and the Tigers believe they’re ready to reach the postseason for the first time since 2014. Detroit beat the odds and finished 77-85 last season, the franchise’s best mark since 2016, in Hinch’s debut as the team’s manager.

Thanks to key offseason additions, highlighted by Baez, the Tigers now have a legitimate chance to push for the American League Central crown.

“We’re going to have magic,” Baez said. “I want to go out there and have fun, compete and win.”

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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