DETROIT — When the Chicago Cubs dealt Javier Báez to the New York Mets during the great summer sell-off of 2021, many fans hoped they’d bring him back as a free agent that offseason.
While President Jed Hoyer reportedly spoke with Báez’s agent about a return, the Cubs had no intention of paying the kind of money the Detroit Tigers did when they reeled him in with a six-year, $140 million deal.
As Báez faced his old team Monday at Comerica Park, the Cubs were in the middle of a playoff hunt while the Tigers remained in their usual mode — perpetually rebuilding. The Cubs took the first game of the series, 7-6.
So would the Cubs be in the same place had Hoyer re-signed Báez?
The obvious answer is “no chance.”
Báez’s .592 OPS going into Monday’s game was second-worst in the majors among qualified hitters, ahead of only White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson (.568). He’s hit a combined .231 with a .637 OPS in his two seasons in Detroit, playing on bad teams in a half-empty ballpark.
It also goes without saying the Cubs wouldn’t have signed free agent Dansby Swanson, whose 3.8 WAR ranked fourth among shortstops and whose defense has been Gold Glove-caliber.
Báez has no regrets, as he said in June on a trip to the South Side.
“With all due respect, I don’t care what people say about me or my numbers or my attitude or what I do,” he said. “I’m going to be myself, whether people like it or not.”
He’ll always remain a legend in Chicago, and his jersey is still worn at Wrigley by dozens of fans every game. But maybe the Cubs dodged a bullet when extension talks stalled after the pandemic hit in March 2020.
There was no chance Báez would be ignored Monday when the Cubs came to town for a three-game series. Many of his teammates wore Obvious Shirts during batting practice that read “El Mago.” It looked the same as the Obvious Shirt sold in Chicago when he starred on the North Side, except in orange letters on a navy blue T-shirt, the Tigers’ colors.
Tigers performance coach Shane Wallen, formerly a strength coach with the Cubs, has a connection with the Obvious Shirts’ owner and ordered them for the Cubs series. Tigers utilityman Zach McKinstry, whom the Cubs traded to Detroit for pitching prospect Carlos Guzman in spring training, said it was their way of having a “nice tribute” to Báez, who didn’t take part in pregame batting practice.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal for him, honestly,” McKinstry said. “He’s going to come out and do the same thing he does, play hard and play the game the right way. I’m sure you guys will see some good stuff.”
Báez struck out in his first at-bat and went 1-for-4. He was buzzed by reliever Hayden Wesneski on a 96 mph fastball in the sixth inning before striking out on a sweeper outside the zone. Báez then lined a two-run double down the right field line off Michael Fulmer in the eighth, bringing the Tigers to within a run.
Cubs manager David Ross lauded Báez as “one of those players you buy a ticket to come watch,” pointing to the memorable cat-and-mouse play in Pittsburgh in 2021 when the shortstop scored a run on a routine grounder to first.
“Exciting player, friend, World Series brother, phenomenal dude, good player,” he added. “That’s all I got.”
Asked by a Detroit reporter if he was surprised by Báez’s struggles with the Tigers, Ross replied: “Yes.”
Asked to elaborate, Ross spoke of watching a “great” player in Chicago who loved to compete.
“I know it can’t be for a lack of trying and effort, and wanting to be out there and have success and put on an amazing show for fans,” Ross said. “He loves baseball and he loves being in the spotlight and doing well and wants the big moment. To see him struggle does shock me, yeah.”
While Báez struggles in Detroit, a former Tiger, Jeimer Candelario, has been one of the Cubs’ most valuable acquisitions. The Tigers non-tendered Candelario last November, and he signed a one-year, $5 million deal with the Washington Nationals.
“Unfortunately he struggled a little bit last year, and due to the nature of our situation it was a very difficult decision for us at the tender deadline,” Tigers president Scott Harris, a former protege of Theo Epstein, said after the move. “He seems like he’s in a position now where he can get plenty of at-bats and try to recapture the player he was a couple of years ago.”
That’s exactly what happened. Candelario began Monday tied for second in the majors in doubles with 35 and was 10th with 55 extra-base hits. Candelario played first base Monday, but his fielding at third base has been much better than advertised.
“I knew he was clean over there,” Ross said. “I think the hands work really well. It definitely shocked me how well the hands have played … And he’s smart. His baseball IQ has grown throughout the years, and defensively he’s been great for us. I’ve asked him to do a lot of different things. Move to first, move to third, bounce around a little bit. But he’s consistently played third all year and it’s just nice to be able to have someone who is willing to do that and be part of winning.”
Candelario, who received a nice ovation when he stepped up to the plate in the second inning, said he loved playing in Detroit, recalling playing in the snow in Comerica Park on Opening Day. But now he feels like he’s back in the Cubs family, where he began his career. As a pending free agent, he stands to cash in next winter.
“Who knows what will happen?” Candelario said. “I’m here right now, trying to do the best I can to help my team win and see if they give me the opportunity to be here a long time.”
Báez thought he’d have that opportunity, but it didn’t work out.
Life goes on, and no one is irreplaceable.