April 7, 2015
Don't Trade Tulo
Since the game was between the Rockies and Brewers, it’s possible that Troy Tulowitzki had three hits before most people knew his season had started. He lined an RBI double into the left-field corner in his first at-bat, dented the wall in right-center field with a second double his next time up, and hit a line-drive single in his third trip. The Rockies are staring down the barrel of a fifth straight losing season, but Monday was a reminder that they can still hit, and that Tulowitzki, when healthy, is the second-best player in baseball.
Tulowitzki turned 30 last October. Through age 29, he amassed 37.6 WAR in parts of nine seasons, according to Baseball-Reference. They’re the sunniest bunch when it comes to his defense, so FanGraphs has him at 33.2 WAR, and we credit him with 34.6 WARP. Still, you get it. That’s a really big number. Using the bWAR and asking Play Index to provide context, I found that 108 non-active players have had at least 35 WAR through their age-29 seasons. Of these, 64 are in the Hall of Fame, and seven more are on the ballot, clearly deserving to be in, just waiting for the voters to figure that out. Clayton Kershaw is, obviously, the best Hall of Fame candidate on an NL West roster. It’s almost equally obvious, though, that Tulowitzki is the second best, and when it comes to trade candidates, Tulowitski isn’t just the division’s best—he’s probably baseball’s.
Tulowitzki is also, by some measurements, the most injury-riddled superstar the game has seen in a century. Consider: Baseball-Reference pegs him for at least 5.3 WAR in six different seasons. In three of those, he played fewer than 130 games. The six total seasons above that figure make him special. The three truncated ones make him nearly unique: Babe Ruth and Frank Chance are the only two other players who have done so well in so little playing time in three different seasons by the time they turned 30. In fact, since 1932, the only players in that age range with two five-win seasons of 130 games or fewer (in non-strike years) are Bernie Williams and George Brett. Tulowitzki’s three such seasons since 2009 (they were 2010, 2013 and 2014) are over a quarter of the total occurrences of the achievement during that span. In his first nine seasons, he’s played 961 games. Even if you count only his eight full campaigns—he was a September call-up in 2006—he has averaged 117 games played. This combination of superstar ability and injury problems has never existed before. Every young player as talented as Tulowitzki has either had a much easier time staying on the field, or has seen injury erode that prodigious skill. Not Tulowitzki. He posted 5.5 WAR in 91 games last year, the third-fewest games any player has ever played while adding five or more wins.
The last few seasons have been the toughest on Tulowitzki’s body, too. In 2012, he required surgery to clean up scar tissue in his right groin. In 2013, he fractured a rib. Last year, he tore the labrum in his right hip, requiring more surgery. He’s averaged 88 games played over the last three seasons. The Rockies have the most valuable player in baseball, perhaps, but they can’t keep him on the field, and when he’s gone, they never seem to have an answer at shortstop. Rockies shortstops not named Tulowitzki have been worth -1.2 WAR over the last two seasons. It’s hard to keep decent big-league shortstops around as strictly a contingency plan. (It’s doubly difficult when carrying the seventh-lowest payroll in the league, as the Rockies will this season. There are a ton of reasons for the Rockies to envy the Dodgers, but the Los Angeles bench might be the best one.)
Because the Rockies are so bad and Tulowitzki is so good, trade rumors have grown from whispers to—well, mumbles, I guess. They’re still quiet and unintelligible, but they’re no longer secrets. The Rockies aren’t looking to trade Tulowitzki, but other teams seem to think it’s a possibility. The question is: Can Colorado get enough to make trading the riskiest superstar in the league worth their while?
I’ll argue that they can’t. There are two decent precedents for Tulowitzki, in terms of value (real and perceived) and rough career arc at the time they were dealt. They are Nomar Garciaparra and Hanley Ramirez.
Troy Tulowitzki Trade Comps – At Time of Trade
Ramirez, Garciaparra and Tulowitzki are all over each other’s similar-player lists, on Baseball-Reference, in PECOTA, anywhere worth looking. Strange circumstances surrounded the trades of both Garciaparra (he had just gotten off the disabled list, there was friction between him and the front office, and the Sox were in contention) and Ramirez (the Marlins were massively disappointing, Ramirez was unhappy that he had been moved to third base by the arrival of Jose Reyes, and he was having an off year), but if we’re being honest, Tulowitzki’s situation with the Rockies is not much less awkward than those. The bizarre miniature circus that bubbled up around his decision to go to a ball game on an off day last summer is a good case in point.
Now, there’s another difference to consider. Garciaparra had one and a half years of team control remaining before he was due to hit free agency. Ramirez had two and a half years to go. Tulowitzki has either six years and $118 million or seven years and $129 million left on his current contract. Those are big, scary numbers, in theory, but they could actually represent a terrific bargain, if Tulowitzki ages in anything but a disastrous fashion. Ramirez got $88 million for the next four years over the winter, despite the fact that he’s a far inferior defensive player, has averaged 107 games played over the past two seasons, and moved to left field upon signing the deal.
Ah. That’s another thing we ought to ask, though. Tulowitzki remains, by every account, an average or better defensive shortstop. That’s what he is right now. That’s also what Garciaparra was, through age 29. Then, very suddenly, he wasn’t. His age-30 season was the last during which Garciaparra played more games at shortstop than any other position. Ramirez might never play shortstop again. A move might feel far off right now, but a year from now, Tulowitzki might be mostly a third baseman, or even a corner outfielder. He’s an exceptional hitter no matter where you put him, but as anyone does, he loses significant value if forced to slide down the defensive spectrum.
Last week, I asked Twitter whether Tulowitzki or Cole Hamels has greater trade value. The response wasn’t quite unanimous, but the answer they gave was Tulowitzki. Position player over pitcher, they reasoned. Tulowitzki is younger and more dynamic, and he treats his UCL better. All of these are true. Even so, I’m forced to disagree with the (near) consensus. Given the track record for trade value established by previous players with explosive talent similar to Tulowitzki’s, but also similar (though less evere) injury concerns, I think Tulowitzki’s market value is dented enough right now as to make moving him inadvisable. Like Hamels, he’s an asset far too precious to trade for less than full value, even if having him on the team provides no broader short-term benefit.
The Rockies are a bad team, but that’s not remotely Tulowitzki’s fault. In fact, he’s still worth trying to build around. Of course, committing $20 million to a star player only works if you’re willing to open the wallet and surround him with something. That’s especially true when said star is vulnerable to missed time anyway, making depth a particularly crucial consideration. If a team who can better weather his down time and has a bigger budget with which to work comes calling, and if they make a real offer, the Rockies will have to seriously consider a deal. Until then, there’s no reason to sell low on a guy who, if he stays healthy, is headed for Cooperstown.