While Kendrys Morales’s consecutive-game home-run streak — which ended at seven games on Monday night — and the Blue Jays’ season-high five-game winning streak provided some distraction, this past weekend brought news that most people following the team probably already intuited, namely that Troy Tulowitzki will not play this year. The 33-year-old shortstop had undergone surgery to remove bone spurs in both heels in early April, and while there were initially hopes that he could return in late May or June, and optimism that he could still return this season as late as a month ago, he’s never gotten to the point of going on a rehab assignment. In fact, he hasn’t played a competitive game since July 28, 2017, when he sprained his right ankle running the bases. While he’s vowed to return, it’s difficult to be optimistic about his future.
Though he’s earned All-Star honors five times, won two Gold Gloves, and at one point appeared to be laying the foundation for a Hall of Fame-caliber career, Tulowitzki has always had problems remaining on the field. Since debuting with a 25-game cup of coffee in 2006, he’s played more than 131 games in a season only in 2007 (155 games), 2009 (151 games), and 2011 (143 games). He’s played 100 games in back-to-back seasons just once since 2010-11, and averaged just 115 games per year for 2007-17. In the words of Roseanne Roseannadanna, it’s always something.
In 2008, a right quad strain and a hand laceration limited Tulowitzki to 101 games. In 2010, a fractured hamate held him to 122 games. In 2012, a sports hernia cut his season off after 47 games, while in 2013, a broken rib restricted him to 126 games, and in 2014, surgery to repair the torn labrum in his left hip ended his season after 91 games. The 2015 and -16 seasons (128 and 131 games, respectively) were comparatively healthy, featuring “only” a broken scapula and a quad strain, but last year, before the ankle sprain, came hamstring and groin injuries that combined to limit him to 66 games.
Tulowitzki would have been written off a long time ago if not for the elite combination of offense and defense he once offered as a shortstop. Yes, playing in Colorado inflated his numbers, but even after park adjustments, he was the most valuable shortstop in the game from 2009 to -14, averaging 4.6 WAR despite playing in just 113 games per year over that span; that’s 6.6 per 162 games. Despite the absences, his 27.7 WAR over that span ranked 12th in the majors, his 139 wRC+ 14th. That’s a special player.
Since then, however, Tulo has produced a relatively modest 97 wRC+ (.263/.322/.429) and just 5.3 WAR — admittedly, while playing some very respectable defense at short (7.4 UZR, 15 DRS). His mid-2015 trade to the Blue Jays for Jose Reyes and three pitching prospects, which helped Toronto to its first playoff berth since 1993, has turned into a mess for the Blue Jays, who absorbed the roughly $107 million remaining on the seven-year, $134 million contract extension he signed in November 2010. Beyond this year, for which they’re paying him $20 million, the Blue Jays still owe Tulowitzki a minimum of $38 million: $20 million for 2019, $14 million for 2020, and a $4 million buyout on a $15 million club option for 2021.
At least this season, the Blue Jays acted in anticipation of Tulowitzki’s absence, trading for Aledmys Diaz in December and promoting Lourdes Gurriel, whom they signed in November 2016, through the system fairly quickly. Whereas last year the team netted -0.4 WAR from Ryan Goins, Richard Urena, Darwin Barney, and Josh Donaldson (!) while they filled in for Tulo, this year, they’ve gotten a modest but at least positive 0.9 WAR from the position. Diaz has started 88 of the team’s 131 games at shortstop plus another seven games at third base and has hit for a 100 wRC+ with 1.0 WAR overall. Gurriel has started 17 games at shortstop and another 21 at second base and hit for a 120 wRC+ with 0.7 WAR overall. In a year where the Jays (60-71) have gotten a 5.08 ERA and 4.59 FIP from their rotation, and just 36 games out of Donaldson, neither the absence of Tulowitzki nor the play of Diaz and Gurriel has been the biggest problem.
In speaking to reporters on Sunday, Tulowitzki was adamant about returning in 2019. While praising both Diaz and Gurriel, and welcoming competition from them (“I would love for it to be a competition because that makes our team better,” he said), he brushed off any suggestion of a position change, saying:
“I just said I’m a shortstop. If someone is better than me, I’ll pack my bags and go home. I do think I bring a lot more than what you guys see out there, too, and that’s part of baseball. There’s stuff behind the scenes that goes on, there are things that I try to help teammates with, I think I do bring a veteran leadership. Those things shouldn’t go unnoticed.”
Alas, while younger shortstops missing most or all of a season have returned and fared well — Cristian Guzman and Jose Iglesias both made All-Star teams in their first full seasons back — the recent history of shortstops 30 or older who have missed that much time is a short and grim one. Via the research assistance of Jeff Zimmerman and Dan Szymborski, I came up with a list of seven shortstops in the age-30 to -35 range who missed full seasons (from 1980 onwards) after making at least 250 PA the year before. Two of them (Tomas Perez and Rafael Santana) were hopelessly below replacement level both before and after their years absent, so I decided to exclude them. Here are the other five:
I won’t claim this to be anything close to a comprehensive study, but that’s not a terribly encouraging picture. The group as a whole went from hitting bad to hitting worse, and produced just one-third of its previous value in its comeback season. While Tulowitzki’s last few years as a whole have been better offensively, his replacement-level numbers from last year (78 wRC+, -1.1 UZR, 0.0 WAR) wouldn’t be out of place above.
Running through these for more detail… Gonzalez (the “Sea Bass” one) underwent microfracture surgery in his left knee in March 2008, and after a dreadful return, he did have a big 3.0 WAR season in 2010, but he was pretty much a replacement-level player thereafter. Benjamin’s career never really recovered from 2001 Tommy John surgery, and likewise for Furcal in 2013 — that, after a hot first half had earned him an All-Star berth in 2012. Fernandez suffered a fractured right elbow during the spring of 1996, opening the door for a going-on-22-year-old rookie named Derek Jeter; the veteran shortstop returned to the majors and tallied 7.1 WAR from 1997 to -99. Elster, whose patchy career included multiple extended absences from the majors due to injuries, simply retired for a year and then was coaxed back by Dodgers manager Davey Johnson, under whom he’d played as a Met.
To be fair, none of those absences quite parallels the situation facing Tulowitzki, but it’s not like his injury history offers any more comfort, nor does the Rogers Centre turf. The simple point is that shortstops of a certain an age have the odds against them after missing a year. The good news for the Blue Jays is that they have control over Diaz and Gurriel for longer than they do Tulowitzki, and both of them have already shown their versatility in case the team lucks into having too many bodies. (The 20-year-old Bo Bichette is also a possibility at shortstop, although there are mixed opinions on his defense there.)
The bad news is that the likelihood of ever seeing 2009-14 Tulowitzki again appears remote, which is a shame, because that guy looked as though he had a shot at Cooperstown. Through his age-29 season, he had accumulated 37.8 bWAR, 16th all-time and ahead of 12 of the 21 enshrined shortstops. He may well wind up this generation’s Nomar Garciaparra. The Boston icon had complied 41.2 bWAR through age 29 (the 2003 season), close to the seven-year peak standard for Hall of Fame shortstops (42.9); in fact, Garciaparra’s actual peak score of 43.0 edges past it. But because his career ended after his age-35 season, he finished with 1,771 hits, 220 homers and 44.2 WAR, numbers too low for Hall consideration. Tulowitzki (1,389 hits and 224 homers) isn’t even to Nomah’s level yet.
Thankfully, he’s still got time for a late-career rebound. Maybe Tulo and the Jays will get lucky. Hell, maybe we all will — and, at the very least, get to see a former superstar make a solid return to hit some dingers and play out the rest of his contract. It’s not like we’re hoping to win the lottery, right?
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.