Troy Tulowitzki trade debate: Who won, what's next for Jays and Rockies
Late on Monday night, the Blue Jays stunned the baseball world by acquiring five-time All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki from the Rockies for veteran shortstop Jose Reyes and three pitching prospects—righthanders Miguel Castro, Jeff Hoffman and Jesus Tinoco—to pull off the biggest and boldest deal of the trade deadline to date. To make sense of this unexpected blockbuster, SI.com baseball writers Cliff Corcoran and Jay Jaffe got together to debate which team got the better return in the trade, whether adding Tulowitzki turns Toronto into true World Series contenders, and what the next moves should be for Colorado in the post-Tulo era.
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Who won the Tulowitzki trade?
Jay Jaffe: This is a shocking deal that seemed to come out of nowhere—I think this tweet says it all—even as I suggested last week on MLB Now that the time was right for the Rockies to trade Tulowitzki in the wake of a puzzling postgame comment that suggested he was retreating into some fantasy land to cope with the mediocrity of his surroundings:
To me, it's very difficult to weigh the full impact of this trade, because it doesn't really make sense for either side except as part of a larger sequence. The Blue Jays are scoring 5.28 runs per game, 0.63 more than any other AL team, and while Reyes has been a bit of a laggard offensively, the current gap between him and Tulo has been small (98 OPS+ for the former, 111 for the latter). Going off the fielding metrics, it might be an additional upgrade for Toronto, since this year's Defensive Runs Saved numbers suggest Reyes has been particularly bad (-9 runs, compared to -1 for Tulo), on top of an even bigger gap last year (-16 for Reyes, +7 for Tulo).
If the gap is really that wide and the turf isn't a confounding factor, then I'll buy that this is a move that can indirectly help a pitching staff that's in the bottom third of the league in run prevention and strikeout rate but has been about average on balls in play. Still, I firmly believe that the Blue Jays need to improve their rotation and bullpen if they're going to emerge from the heavy traffic of the AL Wild Card race (they're currently three games out, with six teams between three and five games back).
On the other side, I think we can't really judge this without seeing whether the Rockies flip Reyes, who doesn't fit their needs if they're finally admitting that it's time to go on a full-scale rebuilding path. Three live arms that amount to lottery tickets plus an 32-year-old–injury-prone shortstop with a big contract is three more live arms and about $50 million less in commitments than they had before. But there's no surefire guy that the Rockies can sell to the public as "this is what we got for our franchise player, a key part of our future"—the way, say, the Mets could for Noah Syndergaard in the R.A. Dickey deal. Maybe they get a big top-50 prospect or something when they trade Reyes. Until then, I guess I'd say Toronto got the better end of the deal, even if the grade is "incomplete."
Cliff Corcoran: The question for me isn't so much which team got the better end of the deal, because the needs of these two teams are so radically different. Instead, it's whether each team made efficient use of the trade chips used in the deal and improved its situation.
Jay summarized the Rockies’ end of things nicely: They’ve freed up $52 million beyond this season (in which they’ll actually be paying Reyes about $800,000 more than they would have paid Tulowitzki) and added three live arms to their farm system. Reyes is almost irrelevant. He’ll keep shortstop warm for top prospect Trevor Story, who was promoted to Triple A at the beginning of the month following a strong repeat of Double A to start the year. I don’t see Reyes bringing much in a trade unless the Rockies eat a significant portion of the $56 million-plus he’s still owed through the end of 2017, so I would not be surprised to see the Rockies hold on to him.
The key for Colorado is getting out of what has proven to be a bad contract for an injury-prone player. It’s striking to realize that Reyes, also known for fragility, has played 115 more games than Tulowitzki since the start of the 2012 season. Could the Rockies have done better for a fragile player who will turn 31 in October and is owed $100 million over the next five years? We’ll never know, but I do think that the Rockies needed to move on from Tulowitzki and shift the focus of the franchise from Tulo and Carlos Gonzalez (who is also said be on the block) to Nolan Arenado (who is 24 and under team control through '19), top pitching prospect Jon Gray and a proper rebuild. They accomplished the crucial first step of that here.
As for the Blue Jays, Tulowitzki is under contract through 2020, so evaluating this trade in the context of the '15 pennant race strikes me as misleading. They had a chance to add a player who, at his best, is the an MVP-quality talent, an elite defensive shortstop and elite run producer, and jumped at it, trading three minor-league arms they could afford to part with and taking on a big contract commitment that they were obviously willing to assume. I’m not terribly optimistic about Tulowitzki’s ability to stay healthy into his thirties while playing his home games on the Rogers Centre turf, but the upside is undeniable, and I can’t imagine the Jays will have to make excuses to their fans even if this deal blows up in their face, which it easily could.
As for Toronto's current needs, don’t ignore the inclusion of LaTroy Hawkins in this deal. The Blue Jays’ bullpen with Hawkins (127 ERA+ last five seasons and matching that mark exactly as a Rockie over the last two) and the re-purposed Aaron Sanchez (whose sinker hits 99 mph in short stints) backing up Roberto Osuna is vastly improved. Toronto still needs another starting pitcher, but the team has three days left to do that and plenty of minor-league trade chips available. Even without another starter, the 2015 Blue Jays are inarguably better in the wake of this deal than they were before it, and if that improvement isn’t enough to snap the majors’ longest playoff drought, they still have all of their top hitters under contract for '16, when they will get Marcus Stroman, who is out this season with a torn ACL in his left knee, back in the rotation.
Does this trade make the Blue Jays legitimate World Series contenders?
JJ: I'd say that despite having just a 50–50 record, the Blue Jays were already contenders, as they were just three games out of the second Wild Card spot at the close of play on Monday night. Between their loss to the Mariners and the addition of Tulowitzki, their Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds—which account for a team's schedule and individual PECOTA player projections for the remainder of the season—actually decreased by 0.2% relative to the day before. Those odds give Toronto an 11.4% chance at winning the AL East, where the team is tied for second with the Orioles and seven games back of the Yankees, and a 30.7% chance at landing the a Wild Card berth. Once you adjust for the fact that the Wild-Card Game is essentially a coin toss, the Jays have a 27.3% chance of reaching the Division Series, well behind the AL's top four teams—the Royals, Yankees, Angels and Astros—all of whom are at 60% or higher.
So I'd say the Jays are outside contenders, and while it's not explicitly stated in those odds, the implication is that their relative weakness in that field is due to the combination of distance and traffic and the poor state of their pitching. Their best starter is Mark Buehrle, who is having a representative season at age 36 (3.29 ERA, 118 ERA+, 3.84 FIP, 70% quality-start rate). Their No. 2 guy is Marco Estrada (3.55 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 47% quality-start rate), who is much more erratic. If they need a Game 162 start from one (against the Rays, as the schedule dictates) and a Wild-Card start from the other, that's hardly an automatic path, particularly if the Astros can call upon a combination of Dallas Keuchel and Scott Kazmir under similar circumstances. I'd also put the Toronto pair behind a one-two punch from the Angels—Garrett Richards and Hector Santiago, probably, since calling upon rookie Andrew Heaney seems an un-Mike-Scioscia-like thing to do—as well.
I still say the Blue Jays have to upgrade the rotation before I'd take their shot at their first trip to the World Series since 1993 particularly seriously. And I say that with admiration for what could be a frightening lineup to face, with Tulo, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin.
CC: Don’t forget that Scioscia started rookie John Lackey in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series. As for the Blue Jays being a World Series contender, I’m largely in agreement with Jay here: I don’t think Toronto’s World Series prospects have changed all that much. They’re a better team and, to my eye, have a better chance of making the playoffs with Tulowitzki and Hawkins than they did with Reyes and no Hawkins. However, given that “the playoffs” could very well mean Wild-Card Game and that Toronto's starting pitching is not improved, I don’t think the Jays are necessarily a stronger World Series contender than they were Monday morning.
What's next for the Rockies with their franchise player gone?
CC: Trading Gonzalez should be next. He got off to a slow start this season but has hit .319/.371/.619 with 18 home runs in 61 games since May 14. He's also doing the Rockies all kinds of favors by turning up the heat as the deadline approaches, hitting .459 with 10 home runs in his last 15 games, .571 with seven home runs in his last five games and going 7-for-9 with four homers in his last two games. Gonzalez will turn 30 in October and has an injury history comparable to Tulowitzki’s, but he’s only owed $37 million for the next two years and hitters are in high demand at this deadline. The Rockies could potentially get a better return in terms of prospects for Gonzalez than they did for Tulowitzki, and with Tulo and CarGo finally traded, the Rockies can start to build their team around Arenado and Gray, as I mentioned above.
Colorado's focus should now shift to 2018. That would be the penultimate year of team control for Arenado and Corey Dickerson and the last one for DJ LeMahieu and Charlie Blackmon, but that's far enough out to allow Gray, Story, outfield prospect David Dahl and perhaps fellow outfield prospect Raimel Tapia or some of the players acquired this week to establish themselves in the majors. They key, however, is the franchise breaking itself of the self-defeating habit of entering each winter thinking, “If Tulo and CarGo stay healthy next year, we could be right back in it.” At long last, the Rockies are moving on.
JJ: I agree completely that CarGo should be the next to go, but beyond that, it's unclear who else would bring in anything of significance. Jorge De La Rosa is signed through next season at a reasonable cost ($12.5 million this year and next), but he's carrying a 5.03 ERA, 88 ERA+ and 4.42 FIP in a market that's suddenly flooded with starting pitching. There are other guys in that rotation who can be bumped if it's just a matter of bringing up Gray, who's already suffering from the usual altitude sickness of Triple A Albuquerque (4.53 ERA). John Axford has 16 saves and one more year of club control, but his 4.8 walks per nine and history of pitching his way out of the closer role makes him a minor piece of somebody else's bullpen at best, just as he was for the Cardinals and Pirates down the stretch in the previous two seasons.
I think the focus turns back to Reyes, who as Cliff noted is owed $56 million and can serve as a stopgap until Story is ready. Story is a 22-year-old supplemental first-round pick from 2011 with 125 games at Double A and 21 at Triple A under his belt, so I'd say that at best he might be a guy who they wait on until the Super Two deadline passes next summer. That would mean holding onto Reyes for almost another year, or at least waiting until the winter to deal him, but in thinking about other alternatives—and ruling out the Mets, who aren't taking that kind of money on for a reunion—I wonder if they could flip him to the Padres, who need a legitimate shortstop, since what they've gotten from Alexi Amarista, Clint Barmes and Will Middlebrooks in that capacity is just a .238/.299/.341 showing with average defense. San Diego general manager A.J. Preller has dead-weight salary he'd like to move as well, with guys like Melvin Upton Jr. and Jedd Gyorko, both owed about $33 million beyond this year; maybe the Rockies absorb one of them and get some pitching. A combo of Upton and Andrew Cashner, with the Rockies treating the former as a sunk cost? Or could Gyorko carry second with LeMahieu shifting over to short until Story is ready?
I'm just spit-balling, because I'm still trying to wrap my head around this whole deal, and there aren't a lot of fits for aging, fragile shortstops. The two teams that had expensive ones found each other and have already made us scratch our heads nearly raw, so what comes next is anybody’s guess.