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The Tigers should sign an elite free-agent shortstop. Here’s why.

Javier Baez could move to second base to maximize the impact of available free agent talent

Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Detroit Tigers entered the 2021-22 off-season in dire need of an elite shortstop. One who would shore up their weakest position both in the lineup and on the field. There was a rare class of shortstops on the free-agent market, yet the Tigers didn’t get one.

Rumor has it that Detroit made a run at Carlos Correa, offering a 10-year contract with some bells and whistles, but he wound up waiting out the market and settling for a two-year deal with the Minnesota Twins which morphed into a one-year contract when he opted out of the second season. Correa is one of another class of elite shortstops on the free agent market this winter.

To say that the Tigers need an impact bat in the lineup would be a gross understatement. The team posted the fewest runs per game in any season in 122 years of franchise history, dating back to 1904. With a revolving door of butchers at the position in 2021, adding a solid hitting and fielding shortstop was just what the doctor ordered for the Tigers.

The shortstop that they signed, Javier Baez, had an awful season. Although he led the team with a 2.0 fWAR, that ranked 20th in the major leagues among shortstops (min 350 PA). He slashed just .238/.278/.393 with a wRC+ of 90, which is ten points below a league-average hitter. In the field, he caught a case of the yips, posting minus-5 defensive runs saved and minus-14 UZR/150. He also led the majors with 26 errors.

Comments from Tigers’ new President of Baseball Operations, Scott Harris, would suggest that the team will take another ride with Baez as their shortstop, on the theory that 2022 was an outlier for a player that they believe is a premier option at the position. They shouldn’t. While Baez has had some good seasons, including three where he topped 112 wRC+, his career number is 102 — or just a tick above average. Detroit signed him coming off a season where he posted 4.0 fWAR and 117 wRC+.

The Tigers don’t need to resign themselves to being held back by another long-term contract for an underperforming player. Baez could easily move to second base, or move to another team, and chalk it up to a bad contract signed by Al Avila.

As the Tigers look at the free agent market for solutions to their anemic offense, the one position that stands out with elite talent is again shortstop. After Aaron Judge, who will be the top free agent on the market, probably the four next-best players are all shortstops: Correa, the Dodgers’ Trea Turner, Boston’s Xander Bogaerts, and Atlanta’s Dansby Swanson.

While Detroit has committed up to seven years and $140 million to Baez (now 6 yrs/$120M) he has an opt-out after the 2023 season, and if he does rebound and have a solid year, he could very well jump ship, leaving the Tigers where they started: with a hole at shortstop. Baez spent the second half of the 2021 season playing second base for the New York Mets as they had Francisco Lindor at short, and he had some of the best months of his career at that position. It just so happens that the Tigers had the weakest hitter in the major leagues at second base in the person of Jonathan Schoop, who has one year remaining on his contract.

MLB Trade Rumors ranked the top 50 free agents, with the four shortstops listed at 2, 3, 4 and 5. Their projected salaries range from 7 years/$158 million for Swanson to 9 years/$288 million for Correa. Unless they’re going to sign Aaron Judge for a projected $300 million plus — and I wouldn’t hold my breath on that — signing a shortstop would give them the biggest impact that they could find on the free agent market.

Reports have Harris wanting a left-handed hitting infielder, a right-handed hitting outfielder, and pitching, while they will entertain the addition of adding a catcher. All four of the elite free-agent shortstops are right-handed hitters. But then, the next Lou Whitaker isn’t walking through that door, so improvise!

Scrolling down MLBTR’s list of free agents, there isn’t another middle infielder or third baseman until Brandon Drury at No 37. He and Jean Segura, who played second base for the Phillies and is ranked No 40, are each projected to sign for two years and $18 million. They would be upgrades in Detroit, but Harris would still be searching for an impact bat for the middle of the order. The team needs multiple players of that description.