With less than six weeks to go until pitchers and catchers report, there is a chance the Yankees already have their Opening Day shortstop. If it’s not Gleyber Torres or Tyler Wade (or Hanser Alberto), it’ll likely be Troy Tulowitzki. The Yankees signed Tulowitzki to a low risk league minimum contract earlier this week. The Blue Jays owe him $20M in 2019. (Plus another $18M in 2020.)
Realistically, expectations for Tulowitzki should be low. He hasn’t played in 18 months and, when he did play last, he wasn’t very good. Tulowitzki hit .249/.300/.378 (79 wRC+) in 260 plate appearances in 2017 and .254/.318/.443 (104 wRC+) in 544 plate appearances in 2016. Since the 2015 All-Star break, he’s a .248/.313/.413 (95 wRC+) hitter in over 1,000 plate appearances. Even for a shortstop, that’s crummy.
The Yankees saw something they liked in Tulowitzki though. They attended his workout last month and came away impressed enough to give him a 40-man roster spot and some promise of playing time. For what it’s worth, both Joel Sherman and Ken Rosenthal (subs. req’d) report the Yankees plan to play Tulowitzki at shortstop even if they sign Manny Machado. Huh. I hope we get to find out if that’s true.
We know what the worst case scenario looks like, and it’s not Tulowitzki getting hurt in Spring Training and being unable to take the field. It’s Tulowitzki staying healthy and playing terribly. Remember the 2013 shortstop revolving door? Like that, except it’s one player. What about the best case scenario though? What if the Magic of the Pinstripes™ takes hold and Tulowitzki has a 2012 Eric Chavez season?
That would be very cool. I can’t say I expect it, but that would be very cool. You have to squint your eyes to be optimistic about Tulowitzki going into 2019. That’s always the case with a reclamation project. If you’re looking for reasons to feel good about what he might bring to the table, here are four.
1. He’s healthy! In theory, of course. Tulowitzki had surgery on both heels last April and he is fully recovered. “I was skeptical going in, given how long it’s been since he’d played, but he didn’t seem like a guy who missed all of last year. He was sharp at shortstop. His arm was strong and his bat had some life to it,” said a scout to Dan Martin of Tulowitzki’s recent workout.
The surgeries removed bone spurs that had been bothering Tulowitzki for quite a while — “I would say years,” he told John Lott (subs. req’d) — and, when your feet hurt, it’s hard to do anything properly, especially play baseball at the Major League level. Imagine playing your home games on turf with achy heels? Ouch. Without a solid base underneath you, you can’t really do anything. Hit, throw, run, etc.
If nothing else, Tulowitzki’s heel issues have been addressed. That daily discomfort is no more. Tulowitzki has had plenty of other injury problems — he tore a quad in 2008, broke his wrist in 2010, strained his groin in 2012, broke some ribs in 2013, and had hip surgery in 2014 — but the one thing that has been most bothering him in recent years has been corrected. Tulowitzki is in a good place physically and that is a prerequisite for any optimism.
2. Tulowitzki wears out right field. Like most hitters, Tulowitzki’s power is generally to the pull side. Most of his home runs have been hit to left field as a right-handed batter. Tulowitzki largely hits the ball to the opposite field though. That was true earlier in his career and it’s been true in recent seasons. Here’s his 2015-17 spray heat map (he didn’t play in 2018, remember):
A right-handed hitter who hits the ball the other way tends to be rewarded in Yankee Stadium. Since the current Yankee Stadium opened, we’ve seen several right-handed hitters tweak their approach and aim for the short porch. No one did it better than Alex Rodriguez. Tulowitzki does not have A-Rod power (few do), but he’s talented and has high-end innate hitting ability. Right field is his natural stroke and the short porch beckons.
3. Tulowitzki has never struck out much. The Yankees struck out less than you may think last season. Their team 22.7% strikeout rate was “only” 12th highest among the 30 MLB clubs and more or less equal to the 22.3% league average. That said, the Yankees do have some individual hitters who strike out a lot, specifically Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. They make up for it with their power, but there are strikeout spots in the lineup.
Tulowitzki has never struck out excessively. The highest strikeout rate in his career is a 21.3% strikeout rate in 2015, when he changed leagues at midseason. He struck out in 15.4% of his plate appearances in 2017, the last time he played, and his career strikeout rate is 16.6%. Also, his out-of-zone swing rate has been comfortably better than average throughout his career. Plate discipline tends to age well and Tulowitzki’s always had it.
4. He really wants to be a Yankee. How much does this help on the field? I can’t imagine much, but hey, it doesn’t hurt. Tulowitzki idolized Derek Jeter growing up — I wonder what number he’ll wear in pinstripes since his traditional No. 2 is unavailable? — and it’s long been an open secret that he wanted to one day play for the Yankees.
Tulowitzki is so enamored with the Yankees that he rather memorably showed up to Yankee Stadium as a fan in July 2014. Remember that? Tulowitzki was still with the Rockies at the time but he was on the disabled list and on the East Coast to see a specialist about his hip. He carved out time to catch a ballgame. (Bonus points for the “there’s always money in the banana stand” t-shirt.)
And yet, there was Tulowitzki baking in the sun at Yankee Stadium on a July afternoon. He was in New York and could’ve been doing literally a million other things. Instead, he was at Yankee Stadium. Why? Because he’s always wanted to be a Yankee and he didn’t get to visit the ballpark often as a National League player. Here’s more from Rosenthal:
Tulowitzki could have just signed with a team in need of a shortstop for a full season, or a team that wanted him to play second or third for the first time in his career. All of those possibilities were in play, sources said. A variety of clubs loved the low-risk, high-reward idea of paying Tulowitzki the minimum $555,000 salary, with his previous team, the Blue Jays, picking up the rest.
But great players — and once-great players — always believe in themselves. Tulowitzki appeared in only 66 games over the past two seasons, but he wanted to be on the biggest stage, wanted to satisfy his longstanding desire to play for the Yankees, wanted to prove that he again could be proficient at short now that he has recovered from surgeries on both heels.
I’m not foolish enough to believe that Tulowitzki can will himself into being a great two-way player again just because he’s achieving a goal by playing for the Yankees. Talent tends to win out over nostalgia. I don’t think it hurts though. Tulowitzki is already motivated to prove he isn’t done as a player. Now he’ll get to do it with the team he’s admired. That little extra motivation can only help.
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For what it’s worth, Steamer projects Tulowitzki as a true talent .252/.312/.426 (99 wRC+) hitter in 2019 and that is way better than I expected. I’d sign up for that right now. Give me that and league average defense at shortstop until Didi Gregorius returns and I’ll be a happy camper. That league minimum contract will have been more than worth it. Projections are to be taken with a grain of salt, however.
You have to dream a bit to expect good things from Tulowitzki this coming season. Believe me, I know. As Jay Jaffe wrote in August, shortstops who miss an entire season in their 30s haven’t produced a whole lot once they return. Tulowitzki at his peak was a much better player than Mike Benjamin and Kevin Elster though, and now he’s had his heel problem corrected. That’s kinda huge.
Remember when A-Rod returned from his suspension? He hit .250/.356/.486 (129 wRC+) with 33 home runs that season, which was far better than anyone could’ve reasonably expected. My theory was all the time off in 2014 did his body good. He was able to avoid the wear-and-tear of baseball and let all those nagging injuries heal up. The suspension gave him time to recover and it led to a better than expected 2015 season.
Tulowitzki could very well be in the same place right now. He hasn’t played since July 2017 and that’s given his body time to recover. It’s also a long time to go without facing Major League pitching, but hey, at least his body is probably feeling good. Tulowitzki reported to camp already hurting last year. That won’t be the case his year. He’s healthy and he has a fresh start. The chances of him being an impact player at this point are small, but the chance does still exist.