Hit and Run: Four teams that make sense if Rockies trade Troy Tulowitzki
The Rockies have lost 10 in a row, making clear that yet again, this isn't their year, and Troy Tulowitzki may have had enough. Via the New York Post's Joel Sherman, the 30-year-old shortstop is scheduled to meet with longtime agent Paul Cohen on Thursday to "decide whether it is time to ask Rockies management for a trade." The request is overdue, which will make it harder for Colorado to move him and get anything approaching full value.
The oft-injured Tulowitzki, a four-time All-Star, is off to a slow start this season by his lofty standards, batting just .298/.306/.481 with two homers in 108 plate appearances. That's well off the MVP-caliber .340/.432/.603 he hit last year in 375 PA before being sidelined by a torn labrum in his left hip, an injury that required season-ending surgery. In the rarefied air of Coors Field, this year’s performance equates to a 100 OPS+, 24 points below his career mark and 72 points below last year's showing.
While he has played in all of Colorado's 29 games, making 26 starts, it's not entirely clear that Tulowitzki is at full strength. His 24/2 strikeout-to-walk ratio is far out of character, as are the underlying rates of both outcomes; while he struck out in 14.8% of his plate appearances from 2012 to '14 and walked in 11.6% of them, he's at 22.2% and 1.9%, respectively, this year.
Via FanGraphs, a closer look at Tulowitzki's PITCHf/x-based plate discipline stats suggests something is amiss. (O-SW% is his percentage of pitches he swings at outside the strike zone; Z-SW% is the percentage of pitches he swings at in the strike zone; Swing% is the percentage of pitches he swings at regardless of location; O-CT% is the percentage of pitches he makes contact with outside the strike zone; Z-CT% is the percentage of pitches he makes contact with inside the strike zone; Contact% is the percentage of pitches he makes contact with regardless of location; and Zone% is the percentage of all pitches he sees that are in the strike zone.)
Tulowitzki is seeing significantly more pitches in the strike zone than last year and swinging more often but making less contact; pitchers are challenging him because they can. What's more, he's swinging at far more pitches outside the zone and making far less contact than before. His overall swinging strike rate of 10.6% is well above last year's 7.0% and his career mark of 6.6%.
That out-of-whack performance aside, there are two other notable obstacles Colorado would face in dealing him: his contract and his injury history. Via a 2013 extension that converted his contract into a 10-year, $157.75 million deal, Tulowitzki is making $20 million a year through '19, after which he is guaranteed $14 million for '20 with a $4 million buyout of a $15 million club option for '21, his age-36 season. Including this year, that's a total of $118 million for his age 30–36 seasons. The deal also includes a $2 million assignment bonus if he's traded, plus award bonuses and escalator clauses that could add another $12 million for '20–'21.
In terms of average annual value, Tulowitzki's $15.8 million haul is less than what current and former star shortstops like Jose Reyes ($17.7 million) or Hanley Ramirez ($22 million) are making. Still, it's a lot of risk to take on for a player who hasn't played in 150 games in a season since 2009 and has averaged just 106 games a year in the five full seasons since, including only 88 per year over the past three. Some of his absences have been due to fluke injuries, such as a hit-by-pitch-induced wrist fracture in '10 and a fractured rib in '13, but the left groin and hip issues that wrecked his '12 and '14 seasons aren't so easily dismissed.
Via Sherman, Cohen and Tulowitzki “spent a tremendous amount of time” discussing the possibility of a trade this past winter, and Cohen suggested Tulowitzki could press for a trade:
“It could get to the point for [owner] Dick Monfort and GM Jeff [Bridich] that the storyline every day with the team is when is Tulowitzki being traded,” Cohen said. “That is negative for the franchise as the idea of trading the face of the franchise. They are smart enough to recognize they don’t want that going forward.”
Via the Denver Post's Patrick Saunders, Tulowitzki regularly meets with Cohen when he's in Los Angeles, and while he wouldn't confirm that he's planning to ask for a trade, he seems oddly eager to address a fire that his own representative has rekindled:
"It's a tough topic to talk about… But if it's being thrown around there, it's something I need to get addressed, because the last thing I want is to come to the field every day with that hanging over my head."
If Tulowitzki does ask Monfort and Bridich for a trade, four landing spots come to mind, presented in order of best fit:
1. New York Mets
The Rockies and Mets were said to have discussed Tulowitzki this past winter, but nothing came to fruition. While New York could build a deal around a young pitcher such as 2014 NL Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom, the just-debuted Noah Syndergaard or lefty prospect Steven Matz, the financially-strapped team has already shown an unwillingness to absorb Tuowitzki's salary, particularly with oft-injured David Wright owed $107 million for 2015–20. Even while increasing payroll from $85.0 million (25th in the majors) to $101.3 million (21st) this past winter, general manager Sandy Alderson skimped on spending money on a shortstop, opting to go with 23-year-old Wilmer Flores, whom most observers viewed as having played himself off the position years ago. Flores has hit .245/.297/.415 with four home runs for a 97 OPS+, but his defense has drawn plenty of criticism, even if his seven errors and other mistakes haven't entirely shown up in the small samples of the major metrics; he's average via Defensive Runs Saved, and one run below via Ultimate Zone Rating.
Off to their best start since 2007 at 20–13, the Mets will likely need an upgrade at shortstop at some point if they want to stay in contention. The offense is scoring just 3.76 runs per game, 13th in the National League, and they're 14th in slugging percentage at .352. Even if he can't fully recover his MVP-caliber form, Tulowitzki could help New York seize its current opportunity and add some additional star power to a team that ranks just eighth in the league in attendance, in part because fans have become convinced that ownership won't invest more in the team.
2. Los Angeles Angels
Like the Mariners, the Angels appear to be in need of some offense. They’re 16–17 and second-to-last in the American League in scoring at 3.73 runs per game. Via the Orange County Register’s Jeff Fletcher, GM Jerry Dipoto is already thinking about additions. Particularly since Josh Hamilton has been run out of town, the team’s primary needs are in leftfield and at designated hitter, where both Matt Joyce and C.J. Cron have taken up residence below the Mendoza Line.
At shortstop, 31-year-old Erick Aybar is hitting just .246/.298/.270. He is making $8.5 million this year and owed the same amount next year, his final one before free agency—not too shabby for a player who has averaged 3.5 WAR for the past four seasons. If Colorado isn't interested in Aybar directly as part of a deal (obviously, it would take more than him), he could be used to fetch something that might provide a better fit, such as a young arm.
The big problem for the Angels is that even with the addition of well-regarded righty prospect Andrew Heaney—acquired in the Howie Kendrick trade with the Dodgers during the offseason—their own system is quite depleted, ranked 28th via both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus. Thus, coming up with a package that suits the Rockies could be a challenge.
3. San Diego Padres
Nobody has pulled off more eye-opening trades in the past six months than Padres GM A.J. Preller, but at the moment, San Diego’s roster looks like a warehouse of baseball parts rather than a cohesive whole. Even with Melvin Upton starting the year on the DL due to a foot injury, the Padres have an overcrowded outfield as well as a subpar infield. Shortstop Alexi Amarista (.183/.302/.268), second baseman Jedd Gyorko (.215/.279/.329) and third baseman Will Middlebrooks (.194/.245/.337) have provided dreadful offense, and only Yangervis Solarte (.292/.346/.417) has been available to fill in. Despite their makeover, the team is just 17–17, third in the NL West, though it's the run prevention (4.74 per game, 12th in the league) that's been a bigger problem than the offense (4.62 per game, fifth), in part because while Wil Myers has hit .291/.340/.493, he's been a whopping nine runs below average in centerfield.
Pulling off an intra-division trade between the Padres and Rockies wouldn't be easy, particularly given that the outfield isn't a primary need for Colorado and that San Diego's farm system is both middle-of-the-pack or lower in terms of overall talent and decidedly short on pitching, particularly after Matt Wisler, their only hurler to crack the major prospect lists, was traded to Atlanta in the Craig Kimbrel deal. Preller has already demonstrated his ability to swing multi-team trades, though, and perhaps he can use his outfield surplus to his advantage to make a deal that would satisfy all parties.
4. Seattle Mariners
Expected to contend in the AL West after finishing just one win outside the playoff picture last year, the Mariners have stumbled to a 15–17 start, and their offense is eking out a mere 4.0 runs per game, 12th in the league. Free-agent signing Nelson Cruz already has 15 home runs, but elsewhere in the lineup, only Logan Morrison and platoon DH Seth Smith have been above average in terms of OPS+, with Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano right around average. At shortstop, Brad Miller (.239/.304/.380 for a 95 OPS+) hasn't been dreadful, and given that he's 25 years old and not even arbitration-eligible until after the 2017 season, he could make for a potential trade chip along with a young pitcher such as James Paxton or Taijuan Walker.
That said, Seattle has already pushed its payroll to a club record $123.2 million, a $33 million increase over last year, and it has roughly $65 million a year committed to the trio of Cano, Cruz and Felix Hernandez from 2016 to '18, with Seager's salary increasing to $19 million in that time as well. It probably doesn’t make sense for the Mariners to have over $100 million committed to five players three years down the road.
That's a difficult landscape for dealing, one that's not made any easier by the apparent lack of interest on the part of the Yankees, who via Sherman and other sources are unwilling to take on additional long-term risk. Of course, it remains to be seen whether Tulowitzki will even admit that he wants a trade, or if the Rockies’ brass will concede that now is the time to part ways with the face of the franchise.