BRADENTON, Fla. — Welcome to Detroit, Javier Báez. Well, the Grapefruit League warmup for Detroit, anyway.
Báez has technically been a Tiger for a few months, having inked a six-year deal on Dec. 1, 2021, but Saturday marked his first official game action for the Olde English D. Because first impressions are important, Tigers fans at LECOM Park made sure their new prized shortstop felt a little Motown love with a hearty round of applause as he strode to the plate in the first inning against the Pirates.
“It feels great. You got to feel the fans, and all their welcomes to Detroit and stuff,” Báez said following the Tigers’ 6-3 loss to the Pirates. “I was excited because we took pictures the other day and I was in full uni. … I was really excited to be out there and on the field [Saturday] and get moving a little bit.”
No balls ventured near the hole to give Báez the opportunity to show the sweet glove that earned him the nickname “El Mago” (Spanish for “The Magician”), snagged him a National League Gold Glove Award in 2020 and coaxed a $140 million contract out of Detroit.
In his lone action on defense, Báez performed a smooth scoop of starter Casey Mize’s low throw to the bag to nab lead runner Daniel Vogelbach for the second out of the second inning.
Similarly, during a 5 1/2-inning outing that’s pretty typical for veterans early on in Spring Training, Báez tapped a chopper to shortstop for a fielder’s choice in the first and flied out to left in the third for his lone at-bats.
El Mago might not have had any tricks up his sleeve in his debut, but the stark contrast between this spring and last, when manager A.J. Hinch auditioned a multitude of potentials at shortstop, certainly gives Detroit — one of MLB’s most-improved teams last season — a head start on logistics.
“Just from Day 1 that Báez walked in there, the guys in the clubhouse, the smiles on there faces tells you everything,” general manager Al Avila said. “And then the way he kind of reacted to that welcome, and you could just tell he’s extremely happy right now and off to a great start.
“Obviously, we’ve got to produce on the field, but as far as the chemistry goes, right now, we have got great chemistry.”
And with Báez at short and fellow veteran Jonathan Schoop now manning second, it was hard not to feel a little excited about all of the 6-4-3 possibilities in 2022 and beyond. The two have a combined 86 Defensive Runs Saved since 2016.
“It’s easy to like Javy when he’s out there,” Hinch said.
Mize strong in opener
Elsewhere among the debuts, Mize was sharp on the mound in his first spring start. The right-hander danced around the strike zone with precision using his full arsenal, including a knee-buckling slider that had Pirates leadoff hitter Ke’Bryan Hayes squatting low in the box with a frozen bat for the first Pittsburgh out of the game.
“I felt great,” said Mize, who led all rookies with 12 quality starts and pitched to a 1.14 WHIP last season. “Stuff was coming out great, around the zone. I got behind a couple of guys, which I wasn’t happy about, but … I think I threw some good disadvantage-count fastballs, and I was able to get some swing-and-misses, so I was happy about that, for sure.”
Mize, expected to be Detroit’s No. 2 starter behind Opening Day starter Eduardo Rodriguez, said on Monday that he’d like to work on utilizing his splitter more this year. It was his out pitch in college at Auburn, but the 24-year-old has strayed from it lately.
He didn’t need it on Saturday, powering through two one-hit frames, walking one and fanning three of the eight hitters he faced. He threw 39 pitches, 24 for strikes.
“I thought Casey was pretty good,” Hinch said. “From getting his work and being able to have to be tested, I thought it was pretty good.”