For all of the Detroit Tigers' talk about being excited about their young, up-and-coming core and the free agent additions they've made to the pitching staff, there's a big ol' elephant in the room that has been largely shuffled off into a corner throughout the offseason. Javier Báez — with his much-memed league-worst .267 OBP in 2023 and $140 million grasp on the Tigers' pocketbooks — is a problem.
Two years into his six-year tenure with the Tigers, Báez's struggles at the plate have been well-documented. He can still be an elite defensive shortstop, but his strikeout numbers are beyond reproach and he's only managed to walk 50 times in the past two years. The Tigers gambled and have been losing with Báez, but, of course, they have every reason to want to see him improve. It seems that fans' patience to see an improvement isn't just wearing thin, but might be lost to hopelessness entirely.
In a discussion with Jon Heyman and Joel Sherman with the New York Post, manager AJ Hinch didn't exactly give fans even a glimmer of hope. He said, "We need Javy to be good" (which we all know), but also that the team's addition of Mark Canha and the improvements they've seen from Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene, Kerry Carpenter, and Jake Rogers will "help ease his responsibility."
AJ Hinch and the Detroit Tigers' "hopes" for Javier Báez aren't exactly a ringing endorsement
It seems that Hinch is suggesting that Tigers fans should redirect their attention away from how badly Báez has performed in the past two years and toward the exciting young and/or new players, but how easy is that, really, when Báez makes up 22% of the Tigers' payroll and has made himself virtually untradeable? The Tigers have made it clear that Báez is working hard this offseason and wants to be better, but taking pressure off of him and not actively demanding that he lives up to his contract? That's a tough pill to swallow.
The Tigers and their fans do have a lot to be excited about, it's true. That young core so often referred to will step up in a big way and make the Tigers competitive in 2024. Báez is still a defensive threat at shortstop. However, when you take into account the team's offseason strategy (develop younger players, not buy expensive free agents; supplement the roster, not block prospects), it's hard not to wonder how much of it is because of Báez's 22%. The money is in his hands and the team can't take that back or force him to be better, but if they're not doing all they can exceed "just barely serviceable," they're doing something wrong.