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Everyone whiffed on the Troy Tulowitzki trade

Our collective response to the then-superstar shortstop’s trade from Colorado to Toronto is a reminder to stay humble and acknowledge our limits when it comes to evaluating trades.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago, at the 2015 trade deadline, the Colorado Rockies and the Toronto Blue Jays made a trade. The Rockies were 42–55, totally removed from contention, while the Jays were 50–50 but within striking distance of the top of the AL East and thirsty for success. And, more importantly for our purposes, the Rockies seemed to accept that their medium-term future would be an exercise in patience, while the Jays saw their chance in the next few seasons to strike with both Edwin Encarnación and José Bautista. So they made a trade, one with implications both for the then-present and for the future.

The centerpiece, and the player who the trade is usually named for, was Troy Tulowitzki. At the time, Tulo was in the midst of a down season, but only by his own lofty standards. From 2007 to 2014, he had been worth 33.7 fWAR, 15th-most in the majors over that period. And most of his struggles had been due to injury; in every season in which he took the field consistently enough to surpass 600 PAs, he had ended with more than 5 WAR. He offered a tantalizing blend of defensive ability at shortstop with power and patience at the plate. His 2015 was, as mentioned, not living up to that excellent track record, but as a shortstop with a 104 wRC+, Tulo was still more than adequate. His contract ran through 2020, with a team option for 2021, and the Jays owed him $111.5m for five-and-a-half years of play, or $122.5m for six-and-a-half. Tulowitzki was a full-blown superstar, and looked poised to help the Jays turn 2015 around and sustain them through the better part of the next decade.

Headed to Toronto with Tulowitzki was LaTroy Hawkins, a righty reliever who, despite being 42, was in the midst of a pretty decent season. With a matching 3.63 ERA and FIP, and a contract worth just $2.2m for the full season, Hawkins was the kind of pitcher you don’t think much of in March but come July can fetch quite a price from a needy contender.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Colorado Rockies Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Given the lofty perception of Tulowitzki, the relatively team-friendly nature of his contract, and the not-insignificant value that Hawkins carried, one would assume the Rockies extracted a hefty return from the Jays in exchange. Instead, they received a four-player package that seemed underwhelming at best. The only major leaguer included was José Reyes, who had been playing shortstop for the Jays and had presumably been made obsolete by the acquisition of Tulowitzki. Reyes wasn’t terrible, but with a contract worth $22m per year through 2017, he didn’t have much value to the Rockies, either as a player or as a trade chip to be sent elsewhere.

Accompanying Reyes were three prospects. Jeff Hoffman was the best-known, as the 9th overall pick from the 2014 draft. At 22, he had just made the jump from hi-A to AA, and was generally well-regarded; he ranked 73rd in Baseball Prospectus’s 2015 preseason rankings. Miguel Castro was a 20-year-old reliever with a smidge of (ugly) experience in the majors, and Jesus Tinoco was a 20-year-old starter at hi-A. Neither of them really registered on any prospect radars prior to the trade.

At the time the swap narrative went something like this: the Rockies traded a stellar shortstop with a decent contract, plus a useful reliever, for a worse shortstop on a worse contract, one top-100 pitching prospect, and two lottery ticket pitching prospects. You can probably guess what the reactions were, generally. Let’s run through them, shall we?

Grant Brisbee, in his write-up of the trade, said the Rockies “panicked.” Michael Bradburn and Kevin Ruprecht, analyzing the deal for BtBS, described the Blue Jays’ left side of the infield as “set for the foreseeable future,” thanks to the arrival of Tulo. At team sites for the Rockies and Jays, the reactions were more obstreperous. Matt Gross of Purple Row viewed the trade as “likely . . . a disaster for the Rockies,” while Kevin Papetti of Bluebird Banter said the trade was “impressive,” and that it made the left side of the Jays’ infield “unbelievable.”

I don’t bring this up to be cruel, to imply that these writers were dumb, or to do anything in that vein. I agreed wholeheartedly with almost every aspect of those takes, and I think almost everyone did. I bring them up to show that the conventional wisdom was, with very little doubt, that the Jays got a great deal while the Rockies got fleeced.

But that conventional wisdom has not had a good two years. It turned out that Troy Tulowitzki was indeed in the midst of a true decline, not just a momentary stumble, and that decline came faster than expected. He had a 91 wRC+ for the Blue Jays in the rest of 2015, and after a decent but below-expectations 102 wRC+ last year, is currently running a very bad 72 wRC+ in 2017, good for precisely 0.0 fWAR. The Jays made the ALCS in 2015, so you could perhaps construct an argument that the trade was worth it in the short-term. But Tulowitzki barely contributed in that short term, and everything beyond 2015 has been grim.

The package the Rockies received has turned out mostly as expected. Castro was DFA’d before this season, and currently is a member of the Orioles; Tinoco has a 4.35 ERA/5.01 FIP as a 22-year-old at hi-A. The upside has come via Jeff Hoffman, who has a 4.01 ERA/3.44 FIP as a starter in the big leagues this season, good for 1.3 fWAR and dark-horse status in the NL Rookie of the Year race. He’s primed to give Colorado many years of at least decent and possibly very good performance, all for the very cheap salaries that young baseball players are owed. He’s been more than a win better than Tulowitzki this season, by fWAR, and many millions cheaper.

So what’s the takeaway of all this, if the point is not to just laugh at some takes that don’t look great in hindsight? The point is to gently remind myself, and all of you reading this, that we will likely be very badly wrong about something that happens in the three-ish weeks between now and the trade deadline. It could be anything! It could be the thing you’re thinking about right now. In baseball writing and analysis, confidence is rarely in short supply; humility, and an understanding of our own limitations, tends to be much harder to find.

But the one take I didn’t include in my earlier summary was Jeff Sullivan’s, because he’s too damn good at this, and was appropriately ambivalent about the Tulowitzki trade:

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.

That’s a particularly apt statement to make about this trade in particular, given Tulowitzki’s age and injury history. But that general sense of uncertainty, surrounding both the micro and macro aspects of the trade, should be in the background of every analysis of any trade, signing, or other transaction.

There is so much we don’t know about that goes into a trade, and so much that can happen after a trade. Any one of those things is enough to make a confident take look foolish; in combination, they guarantee that we’ll be wrong, egregiously and frequently.

There’s nothing bad about that! Baseball proving us horrifically wrong is one of the best parts of the sport. Nobody thought Aaron Judge would hit a million home runs as a rookie, and thank god for that. That aggressive unpredictability is not a reason to stop trying to predict baseball. But it is a reason to display some humility when doing so. A trade might look inexplicable, and it may indeed turn out to be a bad move. We won’t know for sure for at least a decade, in most cases.

My advice, is that before you pen that hot take or tweet responding to the first trade of this deadline season, think for a minute about all the ways you might be wrong. Then write or say whatever you want, but consider acknowledging all the other things that could happen. None of us know what we’re doing here, not really, and it’s a lot more fun if we can admit that and move on, instead of trying to pretend we’re all Nostradamus. But that’s just my opinion, and maybe I’m wrong!

Henry Druschel is the co-Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.