Chicago – For most of the season, the public narrative around Javier Báez was some version of, “We’re stuck paying this guy $140 million for the next five years? What the heck are the Tigers going to do now?”
Now that Báez has heated up and begun to flash the dynamic, game-changing skills that attracted the Tigers to him, maybe the critics have quieted somewhat. But you should know that particular narrative never held sway inside the Tigers’ clubhouse.
“We keep all that garbage out,” manager AJ Hinch said.
Since the All-Star break, Báez has slashed .286/.328/.429 with a 113 OPS-plus. Those are still pedestrian numbers for a player of Baez’s stature, but they represent a huge step forward.
In 21 games this month, Báez’s production has been elite – .354/.378/.595 with a 172 OPS-plus.
“This whole month I’ve been seeing the ball better,” Báez said after he homered in a three-hit, three-RBI night here Saturday. “I’m loading a little earlier and just being more on time. Just making that adjustment to stay on the ball.
“I still get off my plan sometimes and still swing at pitches out of the zone. But when I can make adjustments in the moment like that it makes me better.”
Is it enough to salvage his season? Is it enough to quiet the “Báez is a bust” chatter? Those aren’t the questions Hinch or president of baseball operations Scott Harris are asking.
“Of course you want guys to be in a good mindset when they leave,” Hinch said. “You want guys to feel good about themselves going into their offseason program. But we’re committed to him and he’s committed to us.
“Obviously, it’s important for him to be a good version of himself coming into next season. We have a lot of confidence that’s going to happen, and it starts with the adjustments he’s made in the second half.”
Hinch talked about Báez having to adjust being “the center of attention” in the city and in the clubhouse. Think about it, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo were the top dogs on those Cubs teams and with the Mets last year, Francisco Lindor was the alpha in the room.
“For that part of it, that’s been a growing opportunity for him,” Hinch said.
But as far as feeling any pressure because of the contract, Hinch isn’t buying it.
“The premise that it bothered him or that he was concerned about living up to something that was created for him is false,” Hinch said. “I’ve never felt the contract was any sort of pressure. I disagree with any of that pressure that you talk about.
“The pressure to perform at this level is there regardless. But that’s never been a cloud for me of for him. It’s never been an open topic.”
Kreidler needs a new glove
Watching batting practice Saturday night, there was a tall, rangy guy live-shagging balls in center field. Looked a lot like shortstop Ryan Kreidler.
Sure enough, just like Harold Castro, Willi Castro, Kody Clemens, Zack Short and several others who have come through the last couple of years, Kreidler is getting exposed to Hinch’s multi-positional mandate.
“Versatility is a good thing and I think I can do it,” Kreidler said. “There aren’t very many players who can play center field and all the outfield spots and shortstop. So I think it will be good for me if I can figure out how to do this and have that in my back pocket.
“There’s a lot of guys around the league who have extended their careers doing that.”
For Hinch, it’s about expanding opportunities for players and creating optionality for the team.
“One of the things that resonated with me that Scott (Harris) has said from the beginning is that developing at this level is really important,” Hinch said. “And expanding player value for them and for us is super important. Multi-position stuff is something I’ve preached for a couple of years now.”
Clearly, the Tigers see Kreidler as a valuable piece of the future. But what if they go out this offseason and add an everyday infielder? That shouldn’t automatically consign Kreidler to another full season in Triple-A.
“Having Kreidler be a potential option in the outfield just opens up eyes,” Hinch said. “Look at where Willi Castro is today versus where he was at the beginning of the year. Kody Clemens played positions he never played before and it kept him on the roster longer than people may have thought.
“This happens all the time and we have to be aware of players who can expand their responsibilities.”
The best example of the usefulness of this kind of duty expansion is Marwin Gonzalez. A career infielder, Hinch transitioned him to left field in 2017. Gonzalez, skeptical at first, ended up starting every game of the World Series in left field.
“I’m sure glad we put him in left field when we did to open that opportunity for him,” Hinch said. “And he helped our team. More players can play more positions than we give them credit for.”
This is not a referendum on whether the Tigers think Kreidler can be an everyday infielder. His A-trade is still shortstop.
“Ryan is a very good defensive player on the infield and he’s going to play as much time in the infield as we can open up,” Hinch said. “But if he can add a dimension to his game that will help us in in-game decision-making or create a place on a team, we’re all for it.”
So is Kreidler, who had to borrow catcher Eric Haase’s outfield glove – speaking of players who’ve been asked to play other positions. Kreidler hasn’t played outfield since his freshman year at Davis (California) High School.
“However they want to make the team better is cool with me,” he said. “And if I’m a part of that, great. I’ll be available for different opportunities. If something comes up, I want to be the guy they turn to.”
Around the horn
Hinch has been texting back and forth with Double-A Erie manager Gabe Alvarez, who has the Seawolves one game away from the Eastern League championship. “I’m excited for those guys,” he said. “It’s fun for those kids. When you talk about teams that have won and players who have won together, they all talk about the experience and the bond it creates and learning how to do it. We want them to continue and to pull it out, to create a memory but also to create an expectation to win.”