Chicago Cubs shortstop Javier Báez is one of the most exciting players in baseball, and it looks like he’s on the market. What would it take for the Detroit Tigers to land him?
Javier Báez is one five outstanding shortstops set to be a free agent in 2022, in what may be the best single position class in the history of free agency. The Detroit Tigers could wait until next year and open their wallet, or they can strike now and buy themselves a full year of exclusive negotiating rights with Báez.
It’s unlikely we’ll see the Detroit Tigers make a big move. They are still far from contention, and they probably want to give Willi Castro another season to prove himself at the position.
But it’s funny how front office moves can change the tenor of an offseason. In Chicago, the reality has set in that the Cubs’ run is over, and with the mildly surprising departure of Theo Epstein, the North Siders appear poised for a rebuild. The Cubs are reportedly willing to listen to offers for Javier Báez.
Meanwhile in Detroit, where the Tigers sport a .365 winning percentage over the last four years, there appears to be a sudden air of cautious optimism among fans thanks to hiring of A.J. Hinch and his coaching staff.
So lets indulge our fantasies for a second, and dig a bit more into a potential Javier Báez trade.
Who is Javier Báez?
The Cubs selected Javier Báez 9th overall in the epic 2011 draft class, taking him just one pick after his fellow Puerto Rican (and 2022 free-agent shortstop) Francisco Lindor. He earned praise for his tremendous physical tools, but his Baseball America draft profile ($) made mention of poor makeup several times.
"Baez is explosive and scouts generally pan his makeup…His tools fit the catcher profile, but his makeup does not. He plays with energy, but it’s not always positive, and he turns off some scouts with emotional outbursts and an off-field demeanor some describe as aloof."
The Cubs held Báez back in extended spring training, but when he finally started playing he demolished minor-league pitching. He hit his way to High-A ball after just 57 games in the Midwest League in 2012, and in 2013 he went bonkers, batting .282 with 37 home runs, 34 doubles, and 20 steals in 130 games between High-A and Double-A.
Báez remained raw and aggressive, but those physical tools — elite bat speed, massive raw power, above-average speed, and a plus arm — proved too much to contain. He made his MLB debut in August of 2014, but he was clearly overmatched. He batted just .194 with a ghastly 42% strikeout rate, but he did manage 9 home runs.
A broken bone cost him time in 2015, and he played in just 28 big-league games, but Báez took over as the Cubs’ primary second baseman in 2016. He showed steady progress and put together two solid campaigns, batting .273 with 37 home runs and 22 steals over two seasons
Then Báez had a massive breakout in 2018, hitting .290 with 34 home runs and 21 steals, good for 5.5 WAR and a runner-up finish in the National League MVP vote. The Cubs moved him to shortstop for 2019, and he managed to nearly duplicate his offensive performance while also playing plus defense.
Last season was an abject disaster for Báez, at least offensively, as he hit just .203 with 8 home runs and frightening 0.09 BB/K ratio. His exit velo dropped, his launch angle rose sharply, and he hit just .161 on anything that wasn’t a fastball. He did, however, win his first career Gold Glove.
Javier Báez’s brutal 2020 season can plausibly be explained away as a small sample in a very strange year, but his underlying plate discipline issues have to give front offices pause.
Since 2000 there have been 573 individual seasons from qualified hitters who walked in 6% or fewer of their plate appearances. Just 22 of those low-walk seasons also came with a strikeout rate above 25%. Javier Baez is responsible for four of them, and no other player has more than two.
Simply put, players with plate discipline like Javier Báez don’t succeed in Major League Baseball. Seemingly any front-office model for acquiring players would dismiss Báez immediately.
And yet, Javier Báez has succeeded at the MLB level, and he’s done so recently. His physical tools are special, and his defensive ability gives him a solid floor. He may simply be a unicorn; a prototype never meant for mass production.
The question is, should the Detroit Tigers, who set MLB records for team strikeouts in each of the past two seasons, even consider a player like Báez? Well, that depends on the cost.
The Cost of Acquiring Javier Báez
Compared to the rest of his shortstop peers, Javier Báez is a relative bargain. He is set to make around $11-12 million in 2021, which is roughly half of what Francisco Lindor will cost, and about $5 million cheaper than Corey Seager and Trevor Story.
Of course, a lower salary means a more expensive return in terms of prospects. Still, with just one year of control remaining, and a projected surplus value of about $16 million, Báez shouldn’t be too costly.
In fact, the Trade Simulator at Baseball Trade Values thinks a straight-up deal of Willi Castro for Javier Báez is fair. That makes some sense, as Castro spent 2020 doing a decent Báez impersonation (at least on offense), but it probably wouldn’t be palatable to a Cubs fanbase that loves Báez for his enthusiasm, lightning-quick tags, and massive home runs.
Still, Willi Castro isn’t a bad starting place. He’s a switch-hitting infielder with some pop and some speed, and he’s under team control through 2025. Perhaps if the Tigers add in a bit more they can coax the Cubs into a deal. Maybe something like this:
The Cubs may not want to part with Javier Báez unless they’re blown away by an offer, and this probably isn’t that. But it does seem fair. They get a young middle infielder with some MLB success, a glove-first catcher, and an interesting young pitcher with eye-popping spin rates.
The Detroit Tigers don’t make this deal if they aren’t convinced they can sign Báez to an extension, and they probably don’t make this deal no matter what. But it’s fun to dream a bit, because a trade for Báez would be another sign the franchise is ready to compete again.