El Mago ‘ready for the new chapter’ with Tigers

Detroit Tigers

LAKELAND, Fla. — From the moment Javier Báez stepped onto the back fields at Tigertown for the first time Sunday morning, he wasn’t difficult to spot. His orange spikes stood out from the rest of the Tigers’ infielders on the dirt taking ground balls, a pair of bright feet that shined in the early morning sun against the backdrop of the club’s traditional dark blue warmups and hoodies.

It was a fitting image. When the Tigers signed Báez to a six-year, $140 million contract last November, they added his standout defense, which has accumulated 49 Defensive Runs Saved at shortstop since 2016 and earned him a National League Gold Glove Award in 2020.

He’s the Tigers’ most accomplished shortstop since at least the Carlos Guillen era more than a decade ago. He’s also the living, breathing, fielding demonstration of the team’s push to take the next step in its rebuild.

“We’re going to follow him,” veteran Miguel Cabrera said. “When he says, ‘You go,’ we’re gonna go. I’m really excited to play next to him, and hopefully we can have a great year together, and hopefully we can put this team in the playoffs.”

It’s a lot to put on the 29-year-old Báez.

“I’ll be myself,” he said. “I’m always around everybody. I have to let them come to me first so I can get confident and I’ll be around all the guys.”

For now, he’s just trying to get adjusted in his first Spring Training outside of the Cubs’ organization. He was traded to the Mets at last summer’s July 30 Trade Deadline.

“It feels great,” Báez said. “I felt this way when I got traded and it went really good over there in New York, so I’m ready for the new chapter and to see how far we can go.”

Báez said he kept in touch with some of his new teammates through a group text chat while they waited for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and an announcement on Spring Training. A few reached out individually to make introductions. In some ways, he said, it felt like 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic halted Spring Training and left most players waiting at home for word that the season was on while working out to stay in shape.

Now, he said, he’s in shape, ready to ramp up for the season and ready to meet teammates in person.

“There’s a lot of young guys, a lot of players that I played against before, too,” he said. “So I’ll try to get adjusted to the whole team and try to learn some things.”

Part of that learning experience could include feedback on hitting at Comerica Park. He has played eight games there since 2018, batting .333 (14-for-42) with one double, three home runs, eight RBIs and a .927 OPS. When he signed, however, he said the big dimensions could allow him the confidence to use the whole field and put the ball in play.

It isn’t a major adjustment, he said Sunday, but it appears to be a mindset.

“The field in Detroit, a lot of people say it’s big and it’s a long way, but I’ll take it as you’ve got more space to hit the ball. That’s key,” he said. “You want to hit the ball where nobody is, and you’ve got more room there. Homers are going to come, and if we hit a lot of homers, fine, but we just want to hit the ball hard.”

His goals for 2022 are fairly simple.

“First of all,” he said, “to be healthy, the whole team and the whole young system. And then obviously, trying to win, trying to make the playoffs first and then see how far we can go into the playoffs.”

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