Troy Tulowitzki was a surprise acquisition by the Blue Jays in July 2015, an answer to a question no one had really asked. Fans were generally content with Jose Reyes: an exciting offensive player whose declining range was becoming more obvious, but whose contract made him prohibitive to move. The Jays turning Reyes and prospect Jeff Hoffman into Tulowitzki did, on paper, make them better at shortstop. That Tulo’s contract was longer than Reyes’ wasn’t a big deal: he was much better, on both sides of the ball. For a team trying to win right away, any improvement was worthwhile, and Tulo was an improvement.
Tulowitzki has had a disappointing tenure with the Jays, marked by injuries and a potential decline in his skills. The injuries weren’t a surprise, as he’s had to deal with those throughout his entire career. The decline is more worrisome, given the length of his contract. His power, average, and walk rate have been trending down since 2014. He’s not hitting the ball with as much authority. Whether or not his defense has declined depends on who you ask: while Tulowitzki has never been fast (and is still the slowest shortstop in baseball), Baseball Prospectus has him at a solid 2.9 Fielding Runs Above Average, good for eighth in the majors among regular shortstops this season.
It’s ironic that the Blue Jays might be in a similar position now with Tulowitzki as they were with Reyes a couple years ago: a declining shortstop with a large contract that the team has to live with for the foreseeable future. There probably isn’t another deal like the one that brought Tulo to town initially, and even if there were, the Jays probably aren’t in the position to make it. To get Tulo, they gave up a premium prospect in Jeff Hoffman, and the team doesn’t have many of those to spare at the moment. They’re not as good a team as they were in 2015 either, so that deal wouldn’t make sense.
We can assume that, barring some Anthopoulos level chicanery (or another injury) Tulowitzki will be the Jays’ regular shortstop in 2018. There are reasons why this is a good thing. The Jays don’t have another player ready to start. Prospect Richard Urena had a .645 OPS at AA New Hampshire, and is probably a couple years away from potentially getting the call. Ryan Goins is Ryan Goins. The free agent crop at shortstop is thin beyond Zack Cozart, who’s working on a career year at age 31, and will probably get more money than he’s worth. Knowing this, let’s explore some ways the Jays can work around a potential Tulo decline.
Have Better Backups
In hindsight, having better depth was an obvious issue for the Jays coming into this season. With Tulo and the almost-as-often-injured Devon Travis manning the middle infield positions, having reliable backups behind them should have been more of a priority.
On the one hand, this isn’t as simple as saying “get more depth”. Every major league team wants more depth. Good backups tend to move into starting roles, as teams recognize the ascent of talent, and try to make the best of their 25 man roster.
Where the Jays had problems this season wasn’t just in the depth they had, but also in the skillsets of said depth. The primary backup infielders were Goins and Darwin Barney, who are both solid defensively without much else to offer. With most teams running a short bench, the need for players with different skills becomes more apparent. It certainly was a problem when the Jays were running both Goins and Barney out most nights, creating two gaping holes in a lineup that couldn’t afford them.
The team will probably look to keep one of Barney or Goins for next season, and should probably do so. But for that second infielder spot, they could look for someone who could hit a little – like a Steve Pearce, except someone who can play the infield. This would not only help with a potential injury, but give the Jays a pinch-hitting option in the late innings, something they haven’t really had for some time.
Don’t Get Hurt
The Blue Jays’ plan for 2017 probably didn’t include both middle infielders missing extended amounts of time. There aren’t many teams in baseball who have a plan for missing both their second baseman and their shortstop.
Whether you believe Tulo’s injury woes are a result of bad luck, or a systemic problem, isn’t what we’re looking at here. But if either he or Travis (or Josh Donaldson, who missed some time) are healthier next season, that helps the Jays immensely. The drop off from the starters to the bench was cataclysmic, so just being able to pencil Tulo into the lineup helps the team, even if he isn’t as good as he was in Colorado.
There’s not much the team can do here to help: perhaps working some more rest days during the season would help, and ensuring he’s fully recovered from his ankle injury before coming back. But improved injury luck is an easy way for the team to get more from Tulowitzki than they have this season.
If the Jays can’t upgrade at shortstop, then it follows that the team could look to improve at other positions, to offset whatever deficits they may see at a position they can’t change. As for the Jays, there are no shortage of potential opportunities this off-season to improve a sputtering lineup.
On the infield, we have second base, where a returning Travis or a depth acquisition (as we discussed previously) could improve on the Goins/Barney platoon that’s seen far too much time this season. The corners are locked down, assuming Justin Smoak and Josh Donaldson both return. Designated hitter Kendrys Morales has had an unremarkable season, and could be on the block. It’s probable one of he or Steve Pearce gets moved- while Pearce has the better contract and more positional flexibility, it’s that which would make him a more viable asset to other teams.
The outfield is wide open outside of Kevin Pillar, who has also had a down season offensively and could be pushed by the plethora of outfield prospects the Jays have in the minors. Ezequiel Carrera is having a career year, and might have an increased role. Teoscar Hernandez, Dwight Smith Jr, Dalton Pompey, and Anthony Alford could all figure into the 2018 outfield conversation. Franchise icon Jose Bautista has had a disappointing season, and probably won’t be back as a starter. But his spot is also one that could be much better next year with even a passable regular.
All of this doesn’t even get to the starting pitching, which had its own injury and luck troubles this season. But there, too, is an opportunity for the Jays to be better, whether by luck or performance. And if the pitching is better, then the Jays don’t need massive improvements offensively – just enough to get back to average.
We know what Tulowitzki has been previously, and it gives us hope. We look for that bounce-back, that Tulo can be the star he had been in Colorado. It’s likely we’ll see flashes of it as he gets older. There will be days when he can turn on a fastball, and times when he continues to show defensive brilliance, even as he loses some of his athleticism and gets older. Tulo will have value beyond what he provides on the field, as great players do, showing others what it takes to be as good as he was earlier in his career. But even if Tulo does continue to decline, the Jays have ways to work with him, ensuring that they get the most from their star shortstop, and are able to build a team around someone who’s probably going to be there for a long time.
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