Rockies Choose to Embrace Their Future, At Last

There’s no such thing as ideal circumstances under which to trade Troy Tulowitzki. The best-case scenario is that Tulowitzki is both healthy and performing well, and then, you’re still a front office trading one of the most talented players in baseball. And in Colorado, of course, Tulowitzki has been more than just a good player, having been the beloved face of the franchise. Do something like this, and it’s going to hurt, regardless. But it’s been increasingly clear that a separation would be necessary. That both parties needed to move on. The Rockies just couldn’t get Tulowitzki to stay at peak level. So they did what they did, doing about the best they could do at the time, and with Carlos Gonzalez probably following Tulowitzki out the door, this is a watershed. No longer will the Rockies be caught trying to build future success around present-day veterans.

Tulowitzki was no stranger to trade rumors. There was thought he could go a year ago, but after lighting the league on fire, he got injured. The injury questions hung over him during the offseason, making it tricky to find a match, and now that he’s been mostly healthy in 2015, his performance has been uncharacteristically mortal. So the injury questions morphed into performance questions, and the Rockies had to accept that. Your opinion of the trade is dependent on your level of Tulowitzki optimism. Given what he’s capable of being, you could argue the Rockies sold low. Alternatively, you could consider it meaningful that the Rockies had trouble getting the 30-year-old Tulowitzki both healthy and great.

The big issue with Tulowitzki is an easy one to understand. Over the last three calendar years, he ranks sixth in baseball among position players in WAR per 600 plate appearances. He’s right there with names like Miguel Cabrera and Andrew McCutchen, and the healthy version of Tulowitzki might’ve been the National League’s best answer to Mike Trout’s talent level. At the same time, over the window, he ranks tied for 31st in total WAR. Still good — still really good — but you can see the impact of all the missed time. One of our major stumbling blocks is evaluating injury-proneness, but Tulowitzki hasn’t exceeded 600 trips to the plate since 2011. Like you and me and everyone, now he’s older than ever. He doesn’t seem particularly durable, and that has an effect on his value.

The more you think Tulowitzki should be able to play, the better you think the Blue Jays did, here, so the worse you think the Rockies did, in turn. We have an inclination to prefer talent over durability. We like to imagine players at their peaks, and peak Tulowitzki is better than almost everybody else. There’s validity in there, and the return seems somewhat light for an elite up-the-middle player. But the injuries are an issue. So is Tulowitzki’s age, and therefore his short-term and long-term future. He has his lowest wRC+ since 2008. Neither the Rockies nor the Blue Jays are acting as if Tulowitzki is an 8-win shortstop. That would be the wrong evaluation.

Tulowitzki is simply a very good shortstop, one whose best days are probably behind him. Excellent days remain, but the Rockies aren’t positioned to be good again for a while, so it makes plenty of sense for them to go for younger parts. There are parallels between his position and Cole Hamels‘ position in Philadelphia. Like Hamels, Tulowitzki has positive value, despite a large commitment. Jose Reyes, meanwhile, has slightly negative value. He’s in here to balance out money, and he probably won’t be in Colorado for long. He’s the most well-known part of the return package, and in ways the least significant.

Jeff Hoffman is a very good pitching prospect. Miguel Castro is a moderately good pitching prospect. Jesus Tinoco is a modestly interesting pitching prospect. Kiley wrote these guys up in some detail. The Rockies didn’t get a can’t-miss blue-chipper. Hoffman is the prize, and he’s only recently back from elbow surgery. He appears to have made some changes, changes that might be temporary but that might also reduce his ceiling if sustained. Castro has a very powerful arm, but he’s raw, and the fact that he’s relieved in the majors already shouldn’t be taken as a sign of his closeness. Tinoco is best thought of as the return for LaTroy Hawkins. He’s about what you’d give up for a reliever like Hawkins in the stretch run. Young, talented, projectable, completely unproven. For every Tinoco that does something, a couple dozen retire unknown.

So it’s Tulowitzki for Reyes, Hoffman, and Castro. Hoffman isn’t ready for the majors. Castro isn’t ready for the majors. Castro might eventually end up a reliever. If you work through the calculations, it does seem like Toronto gets the better end. At least, it doesn’t look like Toronto is paying any kind of trade-deadline premium. But that premium is often linked to demand, and Tulowitzki just couldn’t have commanded a huge market. Not because there aren’t teams that would be interested, but because you virtually never see money like this move in the middle of the summer. Teams aren’t budgeted for it, and not every team has a Jose Reyes hanging around. There could’ve been a bigger market in the winter, but the Rockies might not have wanted to wait that long. They see that Hoffman’s stock is rising. They know that Tulowitzki’s might drop. The Rockies could’ve offered to pay Tulowitzki down, but owners don’t love that, and Reyes makes things easy. It shouldn’t be too hard to flip him.

Work through the numbers, and the Rockies are selling a little low. But all those numbers are approximations, and it doesn’t take much to shift the equation. A more strongly positive evaluation of Hoffman balances things out. A more strongly positive evaluation of Castro balances things out. Or, it just takes a more negative evaluation of Tulowitzki. Maybe you increase his injury risk. Maybe you think he’s past his performance peak. Maybe you think he’ll age swiftly. There’s a lot of money coming Tulowitzki’s way, and value can diminish awful fast. Let’s say, hypothetically, you think the trade is 60/40 in Toronto’s favor. Pretty small adjustments can take that to 50/50. Many adjustments would be reasonable. The Rockies might be satisfied just to have this behind them.

It’s painful. In some corners, it’s probably devastating. There’s real emotion, real psychology, as Tulowitzki was an icon, a home-grown superstar, and he’s left. The clubhouse feels that, the organization feels that, and the fan base feels that. It sucks. It leaves a void, and it does take time to recover. This is more than just an ordinary baseball move. This is maybe the most significant move in the history of the Rockies.

But it might also have been the right time. This way, good memories are preserved. This way, Tulowitzki gets to play for a potential winner. He’ll be excited, once he’s over the initial shock. And now Colorado doesn’t have to witness Tulowitzki’s decline phase. Maybe it would’ve been graceful, but it frequently isn’t, and then things can get complicated. Opinions can turn. Everybody loves a one-franchise player, but it’s hard and awkward when that player’s getting worse. Todd Helton got worse. He stuck around, but he got worse. Teams eventually need to move on, and feelings can get hurt.

I know one of the most devastating moments in Mariners history was when they traded Ken Griffey Jr. That situation was different, since Griffey asked his way out, while Tulowitzki was dealt without consent. But it was impossible to imagine the Mariners without Griffey in the outfield, until Griffey was no longer in the outfield. In a lot of ways Griffey put the Mariners on the map, but the franchise wound up better for his exit, entering the best years it had ever had. It won’t be so swift with the Rockies, since 2016 is probably going to be rough, but the focus will remain on the team, and not on a player who used to be on it. The team needed to reload. It needed more young talent. And as one more parallel, it’s worth noting that shortly after Griffey left Seattle, he started succumbing to age. It didn’t take long for him to decline.

It wouldn’t make sense for the Rockies to hold on to Decline Tulowitzki. So it made sense to move him at the best opportunity, and while it’s possible that would’ve been this winter, it’s also possible an up-and-down second half would keep people asking questions. Ideally, the Rockies would trade a healthy Tulowitzki performing at last year’s level, but there’s no guarantee that was ever going to be the case again, so they pulled the trigger now, getting real talent, if maybe a bit less than expected. You could say the Rockies were cautious, in moving Tulowitzki this week, before he fully restored his value. But there was also real risk in hanging on, and you could also say trading Tulowitzki is the least cautious thing the Rockies have ever done. It was caution that got them to this point. They swung what was probably the best deal they could make. It’ll ultimately be defined by how successfully they develop the young pitchers, but that’s just a part of the bigger project. They need to develop young pitchers. If they can’t do that, they won’t win, with or without a superstar shortstop.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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8 years ago

Sad to see the face of a franchise move. CarGo will be next. Luckily for Bridich and the Rockies they have an heir in Arenado and a potential OF star in Dickerson.

8 years ago
Reply to  PandaKOST

The Dickerson who looked like a dh who had 3.5 war over 260 games so far?

Stan Gable
8 years ago
Reply to  Dovif

No, you’re thinking of the one who used to play for the Rams.

Goat Fondler
8 years ago
Reply to  PandaKOST

Charlie Blackmon is the true OF star in Denver

8 years ago
Reply to  PandaKOST

Check out Dickerson’s home and away splits…..