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A Big Contract is Hindering the Detroit Tigers

In December 2021, the Detroit Tigers signed Javier Báez to a ridiculous six-year contract for $140 million. It was a deal exceeded in its absurdity only by the one the Los Angeles Angels gave Anthony Rendon. It came with a player opt-out option after two years, a 10-team no-trade clause, and various incentives. However, after hitting .222/.267/.325 with 9 homers and 59 RBI in 2023, Báez declined the option. Thus, he’ll be with the Tigers through 2027. His annual payday will be $25 million in 2024 and 2025 and $24 million in 2026 and 2027. Unfortunately, it’s a deal that will hinder the Tigers until it expires.

Báez’s Ridiculous Six-Year Contract Hindering Tigers

Good Track Record for Báez

Báez had a good track record from his time as a Chicago Cub from 2014-21. He played all over the infield, mostly in the middle, and even a few games in the corner outfield spots. In those eight years, which included two months with the New York Mets after he was traded there in 2021, he hit .265/.307/.477, with 149 home runs and 465 RBI in 862 games. His best year was 2018, when he hit .290/.326/.554 with 34 HR and a National League-leading 111 RBI. He was named to the All-Star team, finished second in MVP voting, and won a Silver Slugger Award. He was an All-Star the following year as well. In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Báez won his only Gold Glove Award for his play at shortstop.

Fortunately for the Tigers and Báez, whenever bad contracts are discussed, their deal is overshadowed by the ridiculous contract given to Rendon. Let’s start by pointing out that unlike Rendon, who has spent his years with the Angels mostly working on the Pensky file, Báez has been in the lineup most days. In 2022 and 2023, he played in 280 of Detroit’s 324 games despite playing the demanding shortstop position.

One Stat Should Have Set Off Alarms

In 2021, Báez hit .265/.319/.494, 31 HR, and 87 RBI while playing strictly in the middle infield. It was no mystery that there would be several teams bidding for his services at the end of the season. Báez even showed himself to be a clever, resourceful player, at least for one May afternoon in Pittsburgh. Not content to be tagged out in what should have been an inning-ending groundout, he goaded Pirates first baseman Will Craig into a preposterous rundown between home plate and first base, resulting in two runs for the Cubs and Craig resuming his career in Japan.

However, Báez also led the league with an alarming 184 strikeouts in 2021. From 2016-21, he struck out 834 times in 782 games. Maybe he got caught up in the “launch angle” craze of that period. Maybe he’s been trying to hit the ball over the infield shift. (Contrary to popular belief, the shift hasn’t been outlawed. What’s been outlawed is having three infielders on either side of second base. Batters are still facing shifts.)

In any event, entering Thursday’s action, Báez is hitting just .228/.270/.354 with 26 HR and 128 RBI as a Tiger, with 283 strikeouts in 289 games. His home run production is declining. He hit just nine homers last year. So far in 2024, he is 5-for-33 and has struck out 11 times. One might call him a “three true outcomes” guy except that he rarely walks. His career high was 30 bases on balls in 2017. He’s more like a two-out-of-three-true-outcomes guy.

Creating Runs (or Not)

To his credit, Tigers manager A.J. Hinch is a rare manager in that he’s not going to let the size of Báez’s ridiculous six-year contract dictate how the Tigers use him. Báez has played in nine games so far in 2024. He’s batted eighth in the order in eight of them. He batted seventh in the other game. This is despite the fact the Tigers rank 11th in the 15-team AL in runs, hits, and homers, and 10th in batting average.

So, how bad has Báez been? Let’s first agree that the object of baseball is to score more runs than the other team. The game is about scoring runs. So far in 2024, entering Thursday’s action, Bàez is credited with -12 wRC+ according to FanGraphs.  A ranking of 60 or below is considered “awful.” There’s no telling what word can be used to describe a negative ranking. Furthermore, Báez had just 61 wRC+ in 2023.

The Matter of Money

In discussing how ridiculous the contract between Báez and the Tigers might be, it’s not just about the performance and the dollars. It’s also the dollars in relation to the team payroll. Here are some payroll statistics for the last five World Series champions and the current Tigers.

Year Team Total Payroll Highest Paid Salary Pct.
2019 Washington Nationals $208,401,340 Stephen Strasburg $39,333,333 18.87
2020 Los Angeles Dodgers 221,573,888 Clayton Kershaw 31,000,000 13.99
2021 Houston Astros 188,729,376 Zack Greinke 35,000,000 18.55
2022 Atlanta Braves 187,340,114 Charlie Morton 20,000,000 10.67
2023 Texas Rangers 213,976,017 Corey Seager 35,500,000 16.59
2024 Detroit Tigers 108,301,933 Javier Báez 25,000,000 23.08

The point is that baseball teams don’t win championships with one player taking up as much of their payroll as Báez does with the Tigers. His presence prevents the Tigers from making significant additions to the team, either by trade or free agent signing. Since the 2017 passing of owner Mike Ilitch, who wanted to win a World Series before he died, the Tigers’ payroll has hovered around $100-125 million from a high of $200 million in 2017. Ilitch was a rare “sportsman” owner, perhaps the last of a breed, who spared no expense to win. Under his son Chris, the Tigers operate more like a business and less like a Strat-O-Matic team with live players.

The Last Word

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with wanting to make money as opposed to losing money. The notion of owners who “want to win” more than they want to make a profit is foolhardy. Small market teams like the Tigers need to watch their payroll expenses and avoid a ridiculous contract such as that granted Báez. Unfortunately, while Báez is on the team under his current contract, and especially not performing, the Tigers may be looking up in the standings for a while.


Photo Credit: © Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK


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