With fantasy baseball drafts on the horizon, Michael Beller will answer a series of burning questions leading up to the start of the MLB season.
In his first at-bat against the Padres on July 9 last year, Troy Tulowitzki did this:
In his final plate appearance of that same game, he did this:
Those were his 19th and 20th homers of the season, a total he reached in just 86 games and 354 trips to the plate. At the All-Star break, Tulowitzki was hitting .345/.435/.613, led the majors in both batting average and home runs (21), and had a realistic chance to win the Triple Crown.
Less than one week later, he went down for the season, thanks to a torn labrum in his hip that required surgery.
It was an all-too-familiar ending for Tulowitzki. Ever since he burst on the scene in 2007, hitting .291/.359/.479 with 24 homers and narrowly losing out on the NL Rookie of the Year Award to Ryan Braun, he has been one of the best offensive and defensive shortstops in baseball. He has also been one of the most frequently injured. In fact, that rookie season was one of just two in which he has played at least 150 games, and one of three that he reached 140. Tulowitzki has missed an average of 45 games per season in eight years since becoming Colorado’s starting shortstop, and has played fewer than 100 games in two of the last three seasons.
No one doubts what Tulowitzki can do when he’s healthy, and despite a maddening inability to remain on the field, fantasy owners cannot resist his siren song. His average draft position in STATS NFBC leagues is 16.23, sandwiched in between Anthony Rizzo and Ian Desmond. Not only did I rate him the best fantasy shortstop in our position primer, I put him all alone in the top tier, apart from both Desmond and Hanley Ramirez. This week’s installment of our Burning Questions series asks, is it worth it to roll the dice on Tulowitzki?
On a per-game basis, Tulowitzki has been about thisfar behind Mike Trout since the latter entered the league three years ago. Tulo’s 162-game average in 2012 through '14 shakes out to .316/.399/.551, 33 homers, 99 RBI and 108 runs, all while playing Gold Glove defense at the most important position. Trout’s average full season is .311/.403/.561 with 33 homers, 104 RBI, 126 runs and 35 steals.
This seems obvious, but it’s important to note when debating whether or not to use a high pick on Tulowitzki. He’s not just a very good player at a shallow position; he’s an elite overall player at one of the thinnest spots in fantasy. Tulowizki’s numbers would make him a star in the outfield or at first base, and they’re borderline ridiculous for a shortstop. We could extend the window beyond the three years we used above to compare Tulo to Mike Trout, and his numbers would be just as good. He slashed .302/.372/.544 with 30 homers in 143 games in 2011, and .315/.381/.568 with 27 homers in 122 games in '10. His career 162-game average is .299/.373/.517 with 30 home runs, 102 RBI and 104 runs. If Tulowitzki could stay healthy for most of the season, there would be an argument for drafting him No. 1, thanks to the scarcity at his position.
Tulowitzki would be guaranteed a bust in Cooperstown if he maintained a 162-game average like that for 10-12 years. However, it would be foolish for us to expect him to remain healthy for an entire season, especially as he turns 30 years old. If you draft Tulowitzki, you’re not just absorbing a Rizzo-, Desmond- or Chris Sale-sized opportunity cost; you also have to commit additional resources to the shortstop position later in your draft as insurance.
Steamer projects a 130-game season for Tulowitzki, in which he hits .302/.383/.525 with 26 homers, 87 RBI and 80 runs—that feels fair, given his track record. Tulowitzki’s batted-ball rates, as well as his average home run and fly ball distances, have been essentially flat during his career. He has had two of his three best HR/FB ratios in the last two seasons, and, like most hitters, he has always been a monster at Coors Field. There’s no reason to expect his per-game power numbers to fall off at all this season, especially after he posted a career-high .263 isolated slugging percentage last year.
Having said that, even if you adopt the most generous projections for Tulowitzki, you’re going to need about a month’s worth of games from another shortstop. It wouldn’t make any sense to take another top-10 shortstop, especially since buying Tulowitzki at his expected price means you’re betting on him to stay healthy for most of the season. If he ends up playing just 50 or so games, it really won’t matter who you draft as his backup. Realistically, you’ll be looking at a pool that includes Alcides Escobar, Erick Aybar, Xander Bogaerts, Danny Santana, Jean Segura, J.J. Hardy, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta. Here is what Steamer projects as an average month for each of them in 2015 (all numbers rounded to nearest whole).
You could get lucky, and have your backup outperform that monthly average, or you could get unlucky, and he could fall short. Those averages, however, are what you would have to project into your shortstop position, alongside Tulowitzki’s numbers, for the entire season. By time you’re jumping back in at shortstop, you’d likely have your choice of at least a few of these players. That means you could do one of two things. You could simply go for whichever one you feel is the best, regardless of skill set, or you could opt for the player who most closely mirrors Tulowitzki. Think of him as the poorest man in the history of civilization’s Tulo. I would go with the latter tack given that, theoretically, you’ve accounted for Tulowitzki’s speed deficit in other parts of your team, and would be without a major power bat if and when he goes to the DL.
That brings us back to the question at hand. Is five months of Tulowitzki, and one month of basically replacement-level production, worth a pick in the 12-to-18 overall range? I say, unequivocally, yes it is. There’s undoubtedly significant injury risk with him, and even at his all-world level last year, the fact that he played just 91 games sunk a lot of his owners. If he can give you 120 games, however, he’ll more than justify his draft-day price. That’s a gamble I’m willing to make.
• BURNING QUESTION I: Is Miguel Cabrera still a first-round pick?
• BURNING QUESTION II: Will Kemp and Braun live up to their price?
• BURNING QUESTION III: Will Harper reach superstar status this year?
• BURNING QUESTION IV: Worth it to draft the oft-injured Tulowitzki?
• BURNING QUESTION V: Coming off surgery, how big a risk is Harvey?
• BURNING QUESTION VI: Invest in Adam Jones's boring consistency?
• BURNING QUESTION VII: Could Strasburg emerge as No. 1 fantasy SP?
• BURNING QUESTION VIII: Will Alcantara emerge as a top-10 2B?