Josh Donaldson is going to be great. Jose Bautista is in week three of his six month rampage towards free agency. It’s probably not going to be pretty, and will assuredly include many thrown bats, nicks, bumps, and bruises along the way, but somehow Edwin Encarnacion is going to mash forty home runs. With the number five hitter, there’s far less certainty of success. He’s beloved by the fans and his teammates alike, yet those watching from the stands, from home, and even from the dugout are about as comfortable watching his at-bats as he appears to be taking them, which is to say, not very comfortable at all. The number five hitter, of course, is shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.
Twenty-one months ago, Troy Tulowitzki was considered to be the 6th most valuable trade asset in baseball, behind a quintet of twenty-somethings who, outside of Mike Trout, were all making a small fraction of the salary the Rockies were paying their shortstop. Sixteen months ago, Tulowitzki was out of the top ten, but still thought to be the 28th most valuable trade asset in baseball, ahead of future teammates Jose Bautista (30th), Josh Donaldson (36th), and Marcus Stroman (45th). The drop was due entirely to late-summer hip surgery which kept him out of game action following the All Star break, as Tulowitzki went under the knife to repair an issue which he hoped would remedy his seemingly never-ending string of lower body injuries.
With the Rockies continuing to prove incapable of fielding a competitive roster, trade rumors swirled around Tulowitzki in late 2014. One of the more intriguing leaks came via Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, who reported on December 19th that Colorado was maintaining an open dialogue with the New York Mets over the embattled shortstop, with a household name around these parts – Noah Syndergaard – being the centerpiece of a potential package of players. Syndergaard, of course, was the 1-B to Travis d’Arnaud’s 1-A in the R.A. Dickey trade two years prior. With Fred Wilpon at the head of the franchise, however, it was money, not young talent, that ended up turtling the discussions.
BREAKING: Tulo traded to #BlueJays.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) July 28, 2015
Nine months ago, Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports dropped a bombshell that shook the baseball world, announcing over Twitter that Troy Tulowitzki had been traded to the Toronto Blue Jays. The details of the exchange would slowly leak out over the following hours, with Troy Tulowitzki and LaTroy Hawkins for Jose Reyes and a trio of talented right-handed pitching prospects being the final arrangement. Toronto had found a way to absorb the money – by dumping Reyes’ nearly identical salary, albeit over fewer years – and managed to do so without forfeiting a prospect even close to the caliber of Syndergaard, with all due respect to Jeff Hoffman.
The reason the Blue Jays managed to pay less, both in terms of financial and prospect capital, was that 2015 Troy Tulowitzki wasn’t playing like 2014 Troy Tulowitzki, or 2013 Troy Tulowitzki, or any other Troy Tulowitzki from recent memory for that matter. His strikeout rate (20.5 percent) was the highest it had been in nine years, his walk rate (6.8 percent) was the lowest it had ever been, and his isolated power started with a one for just the second time in seven years (with the other incidence being the 2012 campaign in which played only 47 games due to groin surgery). The one saving grace which made his fairly hollow .300/.348/.471 look halfway respectable was his .351 BABIP.
In escaping the turmoil of another last place Rockies squad in favor of the pennant chasing Blue Jays, fans were hoping to see the five-time All Star return to form: a defensive wizard and offensive goliath playing an up-the-middle position, and the National League’s answer to Mike Trout. Tulowitzki had his moments, but while his majesty in the field was a welcome emergence after suffering through Jose Reyes for two-plus years, he was unable to reignite the offensive prowess that defined him as one of the elite of the elite in prior years.
After the season reached its satisfying yet ultimately disheartening conclusion at the hands of the Kansas City Royals, as they always do, storylines began to emerge from the clubhouse revealing the trials and tribulations that had befallen various members of the roster. One of the most widely shared stories was that of Troy Tulowitzki, who was described as feeling betrayed by Rockies ownership after being promised he’d never be moved without consultation. Despite being welcomed by his new teammates with open arms, he never felt comfortable, and as he told Brendan Kennedy of the Star in March, the transition was difficult.
It’s now April 2016; Tulowitzki is fewer than two years removed from being regarded as one of baseball’s premier talents, and how he rebounds this season will have a massive impact on the club ‘s short term run production as well as the future construction of the roster. Should Tulowitzki return to looking like his 2009 to 2014 self — a level that had his career on a Hall of Fame trajectory — this Toronto offense could push through the threshold of “best in baseball” and towards “historically great.” In addition, while it would displease most Blue Jays fans, a successful re-emergence of Tulowitzki would make it that much easier for the front office to walk away from Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Among PECOTA’s 90th percentile projections, Tulowitzki’s 6.6 WARP — led by a .307/.384/.532 slash line with 29 home runs — ranks first among shortstops, and is the 17th highest mark among non-catcher position players. That echelon of production is obviously optimistic, particularly given his struggles through the season’s first two-plus weeks, but it’s hardly an impossibility given his track record.
With three MVP candidates ahead of him, however, the Blue Jays don’t necessarily need Tulowitzki to perform like a fourth. In combination with his phenomenal, Gold Glove defense, I think everyone would be overjoyed if Tulowitzki simply hit his PECOTA weighted median projection; the system forecasts 4.4 WARP, a .277/.350/.479 batting line, and 25 home runs. Hitting fifth behind Encarnacion — or leadoff ahead of Donaldson — this kind of production would offer the lineup some much-needed length, and give opposing pitchers less of a breather once they’ve navigated their way through the 2-3-4 gauntlet.
The third option, of course, is that the 2015 version of Tulowitzki is simply who he is at this point. While it’s not often that MVP-type talents completely fall of a cliff from one year to the next, it’s not unprecedented — Blue Jays fans need to look no further than their only Hall of Famer, Roberto Alomar. The second baseman hit .336/.415/.541 as a 33-year old in 2001 (6.9 WARP), then was below replacement level in each of the next three years before finally calling it quits. Alomar’s final hurrah came four years later in his career than Tulowitzki’s 2014, so even if he has entered his decline phase, one would expect it to be far more gradual than his infield predecessor from a couple decades prior. Tulowitzki’s lowest three percentile projections all call for 20+ home runs and between 2.4 and 3.5 WARP, which suggests that even if his career is trending downward, thanks to his immensely valuable defense, he should still be an above average player for at least the next couple of seasons. If this is where Tulowitzki appears to be headed when the summer turns to fall — transitioning from a primary to a secondary piece — it will be significantly harder for Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins to walk away from both impending free agent sluggers.
It may be anecdotal evidence, but it seems like for most hitters on this team the range of outcomes is a relatively narrow one. With Donaldson and Bautista, you know what you’re getting. The same can largely be said for Pillar and Goins, albeit on a considerably lower scale. Conversely, as a complete wild card, Tulowitzki is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. This unique level of uncertainty is what makes the shortstop the linchpin of the season, as the Blue Jays should soar if he produces, but could struggle to lift off if he doesn’t.
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