The Rockies placed Troy Tulowitzki on the 15-day disabled list Tuesday in what was a sadly inevitable part of what had been an MVP-quality season for the All-Star shortstop. Tulowitzki suffered a left hip flexor strain running to first base in the fourth inning of Saturday’s loss to the Phillies and hasn’t played since. This marks the third straight season in which Tulowitzki has hit the disabled list and the fourth such season out of the last five. This frequency of injury is made all the more unfortunate by the fact that, when healthy, Tulowitzki is the best shortstop in the major leagues and arguably one of the game’s best players, period.
To wit, Tulowitzki hits the disabled list leading the majors in batting average (.340), on-base percentage (.432), OPS (1.035) and runs scored (71) and the National League in slugging (.603) and wins above replacement (5.8 per Baseball-Reference.com). Having gotten off to a blazing start, peaking with a .421/.522/.794 line on May 6, Tulowitzki has been the obvious leader in the NL’s Most Valuable Player race all season. But with his lead in that race shrinking in recent weeks, this injury seems likely to topple him from that perch even in the eyes of those who are untroubled by his home/road splits or the Rockies’ position in the standings (they entered Tuesday’s action tied with the Rangers for the worst record in baseball).
When healthy over the last six seasons, Tulowitzki has hit .309/.385/.553 (138 OPS+) while playing Gold Glove-quality defense, but in the four seasons from 2010 to 2013 alone he missed 172 games — more than a full-season’s worth — due to stints on the disabled list. Go back to 2008 and Tulowitzki has spent 260 days on the disabled list before his current stay, missing 231 games, and that doesn’t count the myriad day-to-day injuries that have kept him out of action. According to Baseball Prospectus’ injury data, Tulowitzki has missed a whopping 270 games in his career due to injury. That’s exactly one and two-thirds seasons for a player now in his eighth year as a major league regular. Those injuries could ultimately prove to be the difference between a Hall of Fame career and one that will forever be marked by questions of what might have been.
It remains to be seen how much time Tulowitzki, who hasn’t played in more than 143 games in a season since 2009, will miss due to this injury. This disabled list stay will be retroactive to Sunday, so he’ll be eligible to return on August 4. That doesn’t mean he will, but it is possible for Tulowitzki to return in a timely manner and still make a run at the MVP race. The similarly injury-prone Josh Hamilton won the American League award in 2010 despite missing most of September with broken ribs, but Hamilton had the benefit of a first-place team to boost his candidacy.
Perhaps more importantly, the fact that Tulowitzki is injured again could suppress what he could yield in a potential trade. Rockies owner Dick Monfort has said that he has no plans to trade Tulowitzki, who is signed through 2020 with an option for 2021 and owed a minimum of $118 million beyond this season (not counting a $2 million bonus if he is traded or the various other bonuses and escalators in his contract). However, with Tulowitzki turning 30 in October and with the Rockies looking at a possible third-straight last-place finish and fourth-straight losing season, it wouldn’t be a shock for Tulowitzki to request a trade to a contender.
In early July, Tulowitzki told The Denver Post, “I have the utmost respect for [recently retired Rockies first baseman] Todd [Helton], but at the same time, I don't want to be the next in line as somebody who was here for a long time and didn't have a chance to win every single year. He played in a couple postseason games and went to one World Series. But that's not me. I want to be somewhere where there's a chance to be in the playoffs every single year.”
The two years that the Rockies made the postseason with Helton, Tulowitzki was also on the team.
Soon after those comments, CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reported that Tulowitzki let the team know that he would be okay such a trade, though he’d likely have to explicitly request a trade for the team to act. Teams inquire about Tulowitzki regularly, of course, but the combination of the money left on his contract, that impending 30th birthday and his troubling injury history could keep suitors from offering the franchise-altering package it would take to pry the game’s best shortstop away from one of the game’s worst teams. It could be argued, then, that every successive injury tightens the bonds that have shackled Tulowitzki to the Rockies.
Maybe that’s a positive for Rockies fans in some perverse way, but Tulowitzki’s fragility is bad for baseball in nearly every other way as one of the game’s top talents is caught in a loop between an increasingly hopeless team and the purgatory of the disabled list.