Was Javier Baez the right choice for the Tigers?

MLB

If there seemed like one sure bet this offseason in the unpredictable world of MLB free agency, it’s that the Detroit Tigers would spend whatever it took to land one of the premier shortstops on the market.

Now, that seeming inevitability has come to pass, with Detroit agreeing to a reported six-year, $140 million contract with former Cubs and Mets whirling dervish Javier Baez. The deal contains an opt-out somewhere in its midst, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney.

That the Tigers signed a shortstop is no surprise. But that it would be Baez — that was much less certain. Mainly because the Tigers have been viewed for months as an ideal fit for this year’s No. 1 free agent.

The reasons for that are obvious. Detroit is trying to climb out of a rebuild and into contention. The Tigers had money to spend and no long-term (or even short-term) answer at shortstop. And Correa has a longtime connection to Tigers manager, and Correa brunch pal, AJ Hinch.

To compare the contract the Tigers offered Baez to what they would have had to offer Correa, let’s run back this table:

This is an educated guess, but given Correa’s age and track record, it seems he is headed toward a 10- or 11-year deal, if he wants something that long, for around $35 million in average annual value. So let’s say it’s 11 years for $385 million — hitting the upper range of these estimates now that the list of available All-Star shortstops is down to two.

Consider the win-now teams that need a shortstop: the Yankees, Astros, Angels, Phillies and (I would argue) Cardinals. Two of those five teams are lined up to be the landing spots for Correa and Trevor Story, both of whom have to feel awfully good about how this offseason has lined up so far.

Although we can’t say for sure how deep into negotiations the Tigers got with Correa’s representatives, we can look at this as a head-to-head comparison: Correa or Baez? (Unless the Tigers go the route of the Texas Rangers, who didn’t choose between Marcus Semien and Corey Seager but signed them both.) This is apparently about a $200 million question, for reasons that become clear when you look more closely at the pair’s stats over the past three seasons.

Correa’s OPS+ has been about 20 points higher than Baez’s (126 to 106). He’s just a better hitter. Baez has a slight edge in isolated power, but Correa draws walks at more than twice the rate of Baez and strikes out about 10% less of the time, which translates to a 15-point edge in batting average and a 53-point bulge in on-base percentage.

Baez does have a better track record in defensive runs saved, and a clear edge on the basepaths. He is perhaps the most scintillating baserunner in the majors — not that that’s always a good thing.

He also has the edge in playing time, as Correa has battled a consistent torrent of injuries for much of his career. His standout 2021 season, in which he played 148 games, was the exception, but he made it count: Correa finished fifth in the AL MVP race and won a Platinum Glove as the game’s best defensive shortstop.

I’d rather have Correa’s bat, which is likely to age better from here, even beyond the edge he already has. Baez’s daring on the basepaths might reach a tipping point as he ages, so that edge might erode for him, and Correa’s defense has become so accomplished that I’m not sure Baez even has the edge there any longer. Both have the versatility with the glove to move off of shortstop when the time comes, plus the bat to carry a corner position.

The concern is that while Correa has an edge right now, based on recent performance, especially on a per-game basis, I would guess that gap is only going to increase over the years.

Most of that belief is more about Baez than Correa. The traits that have made Baez one of baseball’s most exciting players over the past few years could really start to work against him as he gets into his 30s.

For one thing, Baez has never developed even a hint of plate discipline over his career, and swinging from his heels remains one of his defining traits. He led the National League with 184 strikeouts last season and walked just 28 times. He has never walked more than 30 times in a season. Despite a level of raw power that causes pitchers to work him carefully, and his consistently high exit velocities, league average remains his upside for getting on base.

Baez gets himself out at the plate perhaps more than any other player in the majors. According to Baseball-Reference, only nine qualifying hitters swing at a higher percentage of pitches than Baez did in 2021, and no one made contact on those swings a lower percentage of the time. His chase rate (44.2%) was just a fraction less than that of MLB leader Salvador Perez.

So given that Baez doesn’t seem to have a penchant for changing his worst habits, what happens when his bat starts to slow? As it is, his strikeout rate has increased each season since 2018, growing from 25.9% to 33.6% last season.

This approach has worked quite well for Baez at times, especially during the 2018 season, when he finished second in NL MVP balloting. Let’s say this continues to happen and Baez remains a hitter who can be counted upon to post an OPS+ between 15% and 30% better than league average, with plus defense and baserunning. That’s a valuable shortstop and a fun player to watch.

However, even given that rosy scenario, there are concerns. Baez missed 24 games last season, as he did in 2019. He has been on the injured list only a couple of times in his career, including a brief stint last season during his time with the Mets because of back spasms. At the same time, though, Baez is constantly playing through nicks and bumps that he invariably picks up because of his all-out playing style. My worry is not just that Baez will miss more games going forward but that the wear and tear over the years that comes from his style will begin to hamper his performance.

You can probably guess where all this is heading. Given the circumstances, and without knowing how far along any talks between the Tigers and Correa might have gotten, I would rather have splurged for Correa and made him the centerpiece of my rebuild rather than give Baez this deal. Hey, it’s not my money.

Still, if my nervousness about Baez proves to be just so much hand-wringing, the contract should prove to be fair value if he just maintains his typical bottom-line production. Although I see a much higher probability for collapse in Baez’s game than in Correa’s, the risk is at least partially mitigated by the different lengths and dollar values between Baez’s deal and the one Correa is likely to get. If you sign Correa for 10, 11 or 12 years and the injury bug returns to limit his time annually, it’s a contract that would be a major albatross for a team in a market like Detroit. In that sense, maybe this was a safer choice.

The good thing about Baez’s fit next to Detroit’s premier hitting prospects — 1B Spencer Torkelson and OF Riley Greene — is that the youngsters both profile as disciplined, all-around hitters. So if you slot Baez between them or behind them, perhaps the future Detroit lineup will balance quite nicely.

For all my concern about Baez, there is no doubt the Tigers just became a lot more interesting, and given their gaping void at shortstop, they also got a lot better. The contract isn’t such a huge swing that it will block Detroit’s ability to fill in the gaps of its roster as young players ascend.

Still, it’s a pretty big swing. That’s a figurative and literal observation, as the Tigers will get plenty of those big swings over the years to come now that Baez has joined them. The Tigers had to get a premier shortstop, and they have done so.

We won’t know for some time whether they landed the wrong one, but one thing we know for sure: However it works out, with Baez it’s always exciting.

Grade: B-

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