Talk about El Mago.
After all that speculation about whether former Cubs All-Star Javy Báez would return to the Mets or the Cubs, the free agent shortstop pulled another trick — and $140 million — out of his hat when he materialized in Detroit this week.
The biggest trick of all might yet turn out to be that the fit between the long-dormant Tigers and the high-energy Báez — who feeds off the crowd — becomes even better than it might have been with a Mets or Cubs reunion.
At least Tigers general manager Al Avila seemed to be convinced of that much as he waded through the All-Stars in this year’s historically strong free agent shortstop class and began focusing on Báez.
“One thing that we wanted to know for sure before we got really deeper into this was that Javy wanted to come to Detroit and be a part of this renaissance, per se, and be a big key part of it,” said Avila, who related a conversation he had with Báez on the Tigers’ plans — a conversation had in Spanish to help assure nothing was lost in translation or even a minor language barrier.
“We explained to him where were as an organization, as a baseball team, and where we wanted to get to, and how we felt that he could be a big part of making us better and getting us to the playoffs,” said Avila — whose team has lost an average of 99 games in MLB’s last four full seasons and whose 35 losses in the pandemic-shortened 2020 represented a 98-loss pace.
“And he reacted by saying he remembered being a young player in the Cubs organization coming up, on a team that was losing,” Avila said, “and then him coming up and being surrounded by other players and eventually getting to the World Series and winning it.”
Báez, who broke out during the 2015 postseason, shined again during the Cubs’ 2016 championship run in his first full season in the majors, including sharing the National League Championship Series MVP honors with Jon Lester.
“He mentioned, ‘You have a lot of that going on now in Detroit, what I went through in Chicago,’ so that was an attractive thing to him,” Avila said.
“By him saying that, knew then, ‘OK, this guy really understands where we’re at.”
Where they go next is another matter. But after going from 47 wins in 2019 to 77 in 2021, the Tigers added Gold Glove catcher Tucker Barnhart in a trade and playoff-tested pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez on a five-year, $77 million deal before signing Báez.
“I know they’ve got talent, and I kind of wanted to try something new, and obviously [people] don’t say much about Detroit,” said Báez, a No. 9 overall draft pick of the Cubs in 2011 who was traded to the Mets as part of the Chicago deadline purge of its core.
“So I’m going to bring my energy here and going to pump up these guys to see how far we can go during the season and obviously try to make it to the playoffs and World Series,” he said.
Tigers chairman Christopher Ilitch called the signing “a turning point for the Tigers.”
“Signing a player like Javy I think sends a message,” he said, “to the baseball world, to our fans, that the Tigers are here to compete.”
Said Báez: “I’m going to bring my talent and my magic over here and see where I can help these guys.”