The Blue Jays shocked the baseball world earlier this week when they released star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.
Tulowitzki is still owed $38 million by the Blue Jays over the next two years. (Azam Farooqui wrote a great article about the financial decision the Jays made last Wednesday, by the way.) He is coming off of a year (2017) which featured his worst offensive production of his career and continued to showcase his injury prone-ness. He didn’t even play in 2018. Needless to say, Tulowitzki’s stock is at an all-time low.
None of that doesn’t make him a non-attractive free agent, however. Because the Blue Jays still owe him the aforementioned $38 million, Tulowitzki is able to sign a contract with any team for the league minimum, which was $545,000 in 2018. Effectively, Tulowitzki has complete control over his next destination, as money is a non-factor here.
Of course, this makes him attractive from a team perspective, too. While he has certainly fallen off the table in recent years, this is still the same shortstop who slashed .304/.378/.535 over a seven year span from 2009 to 2015. Despite only averaging 115 games played per season during that time, Tulowitzki still hit 160 home runs (23 HR/year) and drove in 523 RBIs (75 RBIs/year). He posted 30.2 fWAR during this peak, ranking 11th in baseball and tops among shortstops.
At just $545,000, Tulowitzki is a no-risk investment whatsoever. Even if he’s worth just 0.066 WAR, his contract pays for itself in $/WAR. The intrigue of Tulowitzki, thus, rests in his upside. If he is able to produce even 2 or 3 WAR next year, his contract is an enormous win for whichever team ultimately decides to sign him.
That’s where I come in. What are the odds that Tulowitzki could even be worth 2 or 3 WAR next year? In 2017, he struggled. In just 260 plate appearances — Tulowitzki has struggled mightily to stay healthy throughout his entire career, and 2018 was no exception — he slashed .249/.300/.378, good for a 79 wRC+. His defense was still solid, and despite being well below league-average with the bat, he was still good for 0.1 fWAR.
The odds, then, that Tulowitzki is able to recapture some of the magic that he once had, the future-Hall-of-Famer-type magic, seems unlikely. At this point in his career, Tulowitzki is a 34-year-old, likely over-the-hill shortstop who could provide some added value to a contending team if he can squeeze one or two more good years out of his system.
Steamer, for one, thinks Tulowitzki can rebound, but the system is still uncertain about his overall health. This seems warranted, though Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reported on Dec. 11th that Tulowitzki is “said to be in [his] best health in a long time.” Who knows what this may mean, but considering Tulowitzki hasn’t had a 600+ plate appearance season since 2011, it’s unlikely to think that he’ll be able to do so now.
With that said, Steamer still projects Tulowitzki to slash .255/.314/.420 (98 wRC+) over 330 plate appearances in 2019. The system still likes his defense, rating it as a +3.3 runs above average next year. All in all, it sees Tulowitzki as a 1.3 fWAR player.
Keep in mind, this is Tulowitzki’s 50th percentile projection. Unfortunately, there are no error bars available for Steamer projections, but it’s important to consider that Tulowitzki could easily beat this projection. And, he could do so on volume alone.
Let’s assume that Tulowitzki truly is in the best shape of his life and is able to play better on a grass surface in a normal environment. (Rogers Centre in Toronto has turf, and Coors Field in Colorado has the altitude. Both of these environments were likely unfavorable to Tulowitzki’s health all throughout his career.) In a world in which Tulowitzki gets 600 plate appearances — even at the same level of production — he could be worth about 2.4 WAR.
At 2.4 WAR, Tulowitzki would be worth about $22 million in value to his future team. And, this still is assuming that Tulowitzki is a slightly below league-average bat.
Doing some estimates on my own, if we assume that Tulowitzki’s skillset is identical to 2017, but with a league-average bat (approximately 100 wRC+), he would be worth about 1.0 WAR over 330 plate appearances and about 1.7 WAR over 600 plate appearances. Steamer sees a significant upgrade in his defense and base running, both of which would come with healthier legs. (His bat would improve too.) Tulowitzki, though, has become slower and slower as the years have gone on and will need some time to readjust to playing in the big leagues once again.
It appears that 2.5 WAR may be his ceiling. That could come in two forms. First, it could come from volume, in which Tulowitzki plays to his now-diminished abilities but is somehow able to stay on the field. Or, second, it could come from unsustainable excellent performance over a short period of time due to injuries. The odds that he puts top-notch performance alongside 600-plate appearance durability seem low. The odds that he struggles and can’t stay on the field, similar to 2017, are certainly there. But, with such a small financial obligation, it’s a (zero) risk that teams should be willing to take.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.