'They don't say much about Detroit.' Javy Baez is here to change that.


He didn't know it at the time, and he wouldn't have dared to dream it. But Al Avila saw the Tigers' future midway through the 2018 season. Amid a brutal stretch of losing, he traveled with the team to Chicago for a series with the Cubs and couldn't take his eyes off of Javier Baez.

"He’s running the bases and making plays all over the place. He’s killing us," Avila said Wednesday. "And I’m saying, ‘Damn, can we just get that guy out of the game?' I was beside myself, like, ‘Can we get a guy like that?’"

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Nearly four years later, the Tigers did one better. They got the actual guy. They got Javier Baez with a six-year, $140 million deal that sends a loud message to the rest of baseball: "The Tigers are here to compete," said owner Chris Ilitch.

"He's an electrifying player," said Avila.

Once upon a time, the Tigers were an electrifying team. They had a lineup full of stars headlined by Miguel Cabrera. They had a rotation full of aces led by Justin Verlander. They were in the playoffs every year, knocking on the door of their first World Series title since 1984. They were in the spotlight of their sport. But their talent faded. The roster was razed. The Tigers were ushered off stage to make room for new acts, like Baez and the Cubs. They've spent the last five seasons in obscurity. Baez is here to change that.

"I wanted to try something new," he said. "They don’t say much about Detroit, so I'm going to bring my energy here and pump up these guys to see how far we can go during the season. Try to make it to the playoffs and the World Series."

Unlike most of his new teammates, Baez has made it there before. He won it with the Cubs in 2016 two years after his big-league debut, winning NLCS MVP along the way. He dazzled fans in Chicago with his slick glove and his mighty swing and his speed on the bases, leaving them starry-eyed like Avila. 'El Mago,' they called him: The Magician. He's bringing his act to Detroit.

"I think we’re going to have more fans that want to come watch me and the Tigers play," Baez said with a smile. "I got a huge family that really follows me everywhere, so we’re going to have new fans. We’re going to have magic on the field. I want to have fun out there, compete and win."

Ultimately, that's why Baez is here. The Tigers aren't paying him $23 million per year to sell tickets or boost ratings. They're paying him to help them win. The spotlight comes with it. Baez, in a word, is a winner. So is his new manager. Together, they can build another winner in Detroit.

"When you describe Javy Baez and what he can bring to a team, you go right to the defense, the flair, the power to every part of the ballpark," said A.J. Hinch. "But his competitive character is remarkable. He’s a player that shows up every day to beat you. If you’re not wearing the Old English D, if you're not in our dugout, he’s against you. That competitive character that he brings is something we’ve been trying to build since I’ve been here. He’s a perfect fit."

The Tigers were a bad team when last season began. They were even worse through the first month. There were a competitive team the rest of the way. They can be a great team in the near future, with Baez at the wheel. He knows the road ahead of him, having traveled it with the Cubs. He debuted on a team that finished last in its division. He became a star on the one Chicago will never forget.

Before the Tigers got deep into negotiations with Baez, Avila said they made sure that "Javy wanted to come to Detroit and be a part of this renaissance." They explained to him where they are and where they're going and "how we felt he could be a big part of getting us" there. Baez told them he's done it once and he'll do it again. And then just to be sure, Baez spoke with Cabrera.

"Miggy told him where we’re at and how he can make an impact for us," said Avila.

In turn, Miggy can make an impact on Baez. He can pass on some of the secrets that have made him one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time. Baez said it "was one of the biggest things" that drew him to Detroit, the opportunity to hone his swing under Cabrera's eye. He said "it’s going to be exciting to have him right next to me" starting next season.

"The way that Miggy has done it, I want to have that confidence to have an approach like Miggy, something that takes me to the next level. I haven’t had my best season yet," Baez said. "I’m working to have a great season. I want to talk to Miggy to learn about swings so I can keep my same swing for the rest of my career. I’m working on trying to see the ball better and chase less pitches."

That makes it two free agents that Cabrera has lured to the Tigers this winter. The other, Eduardo Rodriguez, had one request of the team before he signed a five-year, $77 million deal to help anchor Detroit's rotation.

"He said, ‘Hey, I want defense. Are you guys going to get defense?'" Avila said. "I said, ‘We’re going to get a good defensive shortstop for you.’ Defense was very important to us."

As it is to Baez. He led the majors in defensive runs saved in 2018, ranks third among shortstops over the past four seasons and won a Gold Glove in 2020. The Tigers are dead last in defensive runs saved over the past four seasons at minus 45 -- make that defensive runs lost -- after shuffling through names like Willi Castro, Niko Goodrum and Jordy Mercer.

"Shortstop is a position where stability matters," said Hinch. "If you think about the double plays we didn’t turn, the different lineups we constructed with various people at the position -- it was a point of emphasis at the beginning to take care of our pitchers. How did we do it? First we added a catcher (in Tucker Barnhart), now we’ve added a Gold Glove, All-Star-caliber shortstop who makes a great impact in all facets of the game."

We haven't even mentioned his offense, but Baez's bat speaks for itself. He ranks third among big-league shortstops in homers over the past four seasons. On the downside, he ranks second in strikeout rate (Goodrum ranks first). Ideally, that's where Miggy comes in. And Baez expects to benefit from hitting in spacious Comerica Park, where he'll be driven to "go gap to gap, not just hit for power."

The Tigers reached an agreement with Baez in the early morning hours on Tuesday. It was 2:30 AM when Avila got off the phone with Baez's agent, after which he called Hinch. Avila said "Hinch was so excited he kept me up until 4." And then Hinch called Baez in Puerto Rico.

"I just wanted him to know how good I felt that I’m going to write his name into the lineup every day at shortstop, and that he’s going to help us win," Hinch said.

Baez turned 29 on Wednesday. He's already accomplished a lot in his eight-year career, with so much more to come. This juncture of his baseball life is a turning point for the Tigers. After years and years of losing, they're ready to win. And Baez is ready to help them do it, the proven star on a team full of potential, the main act of The Show, the headliner bringing big-time baseball back to Detroit.