Let’s start with a little perspective. Yes, Javier Baez did a really dumb thing and said a pretty dumb (but honest!) thing this weekend. It wasn’t capital D dumb, though.
Baez and some of his new teammates have been upset that Mets fans have been booing the players during their August from hell; the Mets are 8-19 this month and watched a division lead they’d held since early May evaporate into the Queens sky. Now, they’re highly unlikely to reach the postseason. So Baez and a few teammates — it was Baez’s idea, as reported by the New York Daily News — started giving a dramatic thumbs-down gesture to the fans when they had success on the field.
The thought process, it seems: If the fans are going to boo the players when the players fail, the players are going to boo the fans when the players succeed. It’s convoluted, at best. It’s a dumb idea. Not sure what the end game was here. Baez and his teammates have taken a lot of deserved criticism since Baez explained the gesture after the Mets’ win on Sunday.
MORE: Yankees’ trade-deadline acquisitions haven’t been factor in recent surge
But, perspective. Baez didn’t break any written baseball rules or city/state/country laws. He did not do anything remotely like the awful things that have kept either Marcel Ozuna or Trevor Bauer off the field. He did not fail a PED test. Heck, he didn’t even put a sticky substance on the baseball.
Looking forward, though, it seems reasonable to think that Baez isn’t exactly boosting his value on the free agent market, and that looming date with free agency is why he’s in New York now. The Cubs and Baez reportedly had talks about an extension but couldn’t reach a deal, so Chicago traded him to New York before the July 30 trade deadline. Oh, and the extension Baez reportedly turned down? Back in April, ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote this:
“But a problem for Javier Baez is that his poor ’20 performance followed a negotiation that concluded with him passing up a Cubs’ offer somewhere in the range of $180 million.”
He reportedly turned down $180 million. Oops.
Since the start of the 2020 season, Baez has a .228/.269/.436 slash line, an 89 OPS+ (a league average player nets 100) and 3.9 bWAR. He does have 34 homers and 96 RBIs in those 167 games, but also has 228 strikeouts vs. just 25 walks and 141 hits. He’s batting .210 with a .258 on-base percentage in his 17 games with the Mets (who are 6-11 when he plays).
Combine his outstanding 2018 and 2019 seasons, which led to that reported $180 million offer, and Baez produced a .286/.321/.544 slash line, with a 123 OPS and an average 6.5 bWAR. He was second in the NL MVP voting in 2018 and an All-Star both years.
So his production is way down heading into his free-agent year, and now, after just 17 games with his new franchise, he’s leading what is essentially a revolt against the fan base? It’s not the actual action of turning his thumb down, but the way he responded to an adverse situation in a new location.
Yikes and double yikes.
But, again, perspective. Baseball teams have long handed out contracts to players with some sort of check mark in the negative column. If he’s a guy under contract or club control, it’s a bump in the road but not a road block. It’s not a “cut him immediately” problem. But nobody’s going to blame the Mets if they remove him from their free-agent shopping list, considering that this was his reaction after less than a month in front of New York fans. And if the Mets don’t want him back, at any cost, what does that say to other teams that might be looking for a shortstop (or second baseman) in the offseason?
And here’s the other thing: This just might be the worst possible year for a 29-year-old shortstop coming off a few down years to enter the free-agent market. First, there’s the looming labor negotiations. The collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association expires Dec. 1, and the negotiations promise to be contentious. It’s been 27 years since a labor stoppage, and it’s not impossible that streak will end. If nothing else, you’re sure to hear threats of a stoppage, from one side or the other.
And then, there’s this: This will be an absurdly good offseason for teams looking to add a free-agent shortstop to their rosters: Five All-Star caliber shortstops will be available, including Baez. And, sure, Baez is young — he’ll be entering his Age 29 season in 2022 — but he’s not alone. Trevor Story will be in his Age 29 season, too (he’s about two weeks older than Baez). Carlos Correa will be heading into his Age 27 season and Corey Seager into his Age 28 year. Only Marcus Semien is significantly older than Baez, entering his Age 31 season, but he’s putting together a massive season for the Blue Jays in 2021 and should land a lucrative contract, though with fewer years than Correa, Seager or Story.
Let’s do a comparison. Here are the numbers for these five shortstops over the past five seasons.
MORE: “He’s the GOAT”: Braves’ Ron Washington is a master of the fungo
Baez has been durable, which is a point in his column, and he does have power and speed. But he’s long had issues getting on base — even when he was at his best, in 2018, his on-base percentage was .321 — and seeing Baez react this way to the pressure of a new situation isn’t exactly the type of thing that makes an owner or front-office type hand out a massive contract.
When you’re competing against very solid competition for free-agent dollars, the last thing you want to do is give potential future employers a reason to pause. With his struggles over the past two seasons, he’d already fallen far beyond Correa and Seager, not to mention Semien, too (lots of teams would prefer a high-AAV four-year deal to a longer-term contract). Like Baez, Story’s had a subpar 2021, too. Now you add this little element to the equation?
Baez isn’t landing a deal for $180 million this offseason. He’s almost certainly not getting $100 million. He might — considering the combination of struggles at the plate and this incident in New York — even be better off signing a one-year deal somewhere to reestablish his value, then try again next offseason, when he’ll be entering his Age 30 season.
That’s what Semien did after he struggled in the shortened 2020 season with the A’s, and his performance in Toronto has dramatically increased his free-agent value. If Baez wants to land a multiyear deal somewhere, he’ll find one. The total money won’t be nearly what the Cubs once reportedly offered, though.
Because here’s the thing. Yeah, the thumbs-down stunt was foolish. But it’s not something that a little image rehabilitation — and a year of playing like an All-Star, which he’s certainly capable of — could erase in the minds of front-office decision-makers across the sport.