Veteran in Detroit Tigers’ camp is banking on big things from Javier Baez, Cristian Santana

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — Jack Lopez can’t wait for the arrival of an old friend.

At 29 years old, Lopez is the oldest position player on the Detroit Tigers‘ minor-league minicamp roster. The Puerto Rican-born infielder signed a minors deal with the organization in early February, after playing seven games for the Boston Red Sox last season.

And Lopez is waiting on Javier Baez.

The Tigers signed Baez, a fellow 29-year-old Puerto Rican, to a six-year, $140 million contract this past offseason. Baez, along with other players on the 40-man roster, can’t show his face at the Tigers’ complex until MLB ends its lockout.

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“It’s something I’ve never seen before,” Lopez said of MLB’s lockout and collective bargaining agreement negotiations with the MLB Players Association. “I can’t really give much of my opinion on it. But I’m thankful to be here and thankful for the Tigers giving me the opportunity. Hopefully, something gets figured out soon.”

For years, Lopez and Baez trained together in Levittown, Puerto Rico.

Although they aren’t workout companions anymore, Lopez glowed when speaking about the Tigers’ new shortstop. Baez, a two-time All-Star, has played eight MLB seasons with the Chicago Cubs (2014-21) and the New York Mets (2021).

“Javy is awesome,” Lopez said. “We worked out together up until last year. That guy is a gamer. He’s a ballplayer. He’s going to go out there and give it his all. Detroit is going to love him, I can tell you that.”

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Some of Baez’s accomplishments in his career: winning the World Series in 2016, finishing runner-up in National League MVP voting in 2018 and securing a Gold Glove at shortstop in 2020. He hit .265 last season with 31 home runs, 28 walks and 184 strikeouts in 138 games.

How will Baez’s talent impact the Tigers’ future?

“I think he’s going to be a game changer,” Lopez said. “I think he’s going to be a good fit for that lineup. He’s going to do a little bit of everything, and that’s big. You’re going to see hit more triples (at Comerica Park). The guy is unbelievable at running the bases. Overall, it’s going to be a game-changer.”

Lopez isn’t shy about his knowledge of the Tigers’ roster.

He has studied the potential Opening Day starting lineup, highlighting the veteran presences of designated hitter Miguel Cabrera, second baseman Jonathan Schoop, third baseman Jeimer Candelario and catcher Tucker Barnhart.

If Lopez makes the team, he profiles best as a utility player.

“I mean, I want to win,” said Lopez, who could open the season in Triple-A Toledo. “I want to win just as bad as they do. I’m going to try to do my part to break camp (with the Tigers). And we’ll go from there.”

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Lopez has more than 3,200 at-bats in nine minor-league seasons for the Kansas City Royals, Atlanta Braves and Red Sox. The Royals selected him in the 16th round of the 2011 draft from Deltona High in Florida.

“Offensively, I do what I can,” Lopez said. “Defense, that’s something I take pride in, and I try to help my pitcher. … It would be smooth if I could break camp and play up the middle with Javy. We grew up in the same town in Puerto Rico, so I think that would be sweet.”

The Red Sox used Lopez, a silver medalist in the Tokyo Olympics last summer, as a second baseman in his MLB stint last season. The 5-foot-10, 160-pound above-average defender can manage second base, third base, shortstop, center field, left field and right field.

Lopez hit .154 with two doubles, one walk and six strikeouts across seven games for the Red Sox in 2021. He added a .274 batting average, .345 on-base percentage and 15 stolen bases in 68 games for Triple-A Worcester.

“I just try to help the team when I can,” Lopez said.

‘Going to be really good’

As Lopez waits for Baez and the big leaguers, he is focused on improving his craft — with Tigers manager AJ Hinch watching closely but not instructing activities — and serving as a mentor to the younger players.

Two young shortstops have gravitated to Lopez for advice: 18-year-old Cristian Santana and 19-year-old Manuel Sequera.

“They’ve been around me because we’re doing infield drills,” Lopez said. “Too much information for a young kid is not very good, so I just tell them to slow it down. I take pride in my defense, and to be able to give them tips here and there, I try to help them where I can.”

MORE ABOUT HIS GAME: Meet Tigers’ prized prospect Cristian Santana, a confident 18-year-old shortstop

The Tigers signed Santana for a franchise-record $2.95 million bonus as the organization’s headliner of the 2021 international signing period. He is the youngest player in minor-league camp, followed by Cuban outfielder Roberto Campos.

Santana, at 6 feet and 170 pounds, made his professional debut in the Dominican Summer League last season, hitting .269 with nine home runs, 27 RBIs, 30 walks and 46 strikeouts in 54 games. He had a .421 OBP, along with 12 stolen bases in 19 attempts.

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“From what I’ve seen, he is going to be really good,” Lopez said. “Santana, defensively and offensively. I’ve watched him hit a couple times. We’re in different (hitting) groups, but from what I’ve seen, he’s got pop. But defensively, I think he’s one of the better guys out here.”

Before coming to minicamp, Santana trained with 2021 NL MVP runner-up Juan Soto in the Dominican Republic.

Now, he’s working with Lopez.

“I was in their shoes once,” Lopez said. “When I was in Kansas City, I was a prospect back then. I saw big leaguers and liked to ask questions about what’s it like and what do you see up there. Those things they’ve asked me.

“They’re really humble. They work hard, and the coaches do an unbelievable job with them. It’s exciting to be here right now.”

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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