Here’s news you would’ve expected to see if this were 2011: “The Yankees have signed Troy Tulowitzki.” And here’s the back half of that headline that reminds us that we’re firmly in 2019: “To a one-year deal for the league minimum salary.” Late Tuesday night, as most of the country was probably finally getting over its New Year’s Eve hangover, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that New York was adding the veteran shortstop on that aforementioned single-season pact. Unexpectedly a free agent after the Blue Jays released him during the Winter Meetings in December, Tulowitzki has a chance to restart his career in pinstripes.
What we do know about Tulowitzki paints a bleak picture. Not only did he turn 34 in October, but he also hasn’t appeared in a major league game since July 28, 2017. Since then, he’s been sidelined by ankle and foot problems, including bone spurs in both heels that cost him all of the 2018 season. It’s been even longer since we’ve seen the impactful, MVP-contending version of Tulowitzki: the first half of the 2015 season, to be exact, before the Rockies dealt him to Toronto in a deal that shocked everyone, especially him.
With the Jays, Tulowitzki hit a meager .250/.313/.414 across three seasons and spent most of his time on the disabled list. It’s a shadow of the work he produced in Colorado: .299/.371/.513, five All-Star nods and two Gold Glove wins over 10 seasons, as well as a reasonable claim as the best shortstop in baseball over that span and a viable path to Cooperstown. But injuries were Tulowitzki’s constant with the Rockies, too, and at 34, it’s worth wondering whether his body is capable of withstanding the strain and toil of a major league season any more. The Jays concluded that he couldn’t, nor apparently did they want to deal with the potential distraction of Tulowitzki’s playing time or position, an issue that he brought up back in August.
The Yankees will take that gamble, though, and why not? For starters, it’ll cost them close to nothing: the major league minimum, or $555,000. (Tulowitzki still has two years to go on the massive $157.5 million deal he signed with the Rockies in 2010, but Toronto will pay the $38 million left on that contract.) Second, they could use the help, as regular shortstop Didi Gregorius is out until at least the All-Star break after offseason Tommy John surgery. Third, Tulowitzki reportedly looked healthy during a workout for teams in California last month.
It’s as low-risk a gamble as exists for the Yankees. Nor will it get in the way of a pursuit of Manny Machado, the premier shortstop option on the free-agent market, but one who’s perfectly capable of playing third base. (That would require the Yankees to move or dispose of current third baseman Miguel Andujar, but that is inevitable if Machado ever arrives.) Maybe a Tulowitzki who isn’t crippled with foot pain that he said has tortured him for years can find his youth once again for the team of his boyhood idol, Derek Jeter. (Something tells me he won’t be able to wear No. 2 in the Bronx, though.)
The odds are against him, though. As Fangraphs’ Jay Jaffe noted last August when Tulowitzki’s season officially came to an end, the history of 30-and-over shortstops who missed a year or more of playing time and then returned to the field isn’t a happy one. Granted, the likes of Alex Gonzalez and Mike Benjamin were nowhere near what pre-injury Tulowitzki was capable of, but the idea still holds: It’s hard to come back and produce after a long layoff, and even more difficult when you’re past 30. Nor does a persistent history of lower-body and leg injuries bode well for a shortstop. The left side of the Yankees’ infield is leaky enough with the range-deficient Andujar at the hot corner; a compromised Tulowitzki would make it that much worse.
But it’s not as if the Yankees are investing much in this, and if he looks bad in the spring, it’s easy to imagine the team cutting ties quickly. It also wouldn’t take much for Tulowitzki to be even league average. In 2016, his last full season, he managed a 102 OPS+ and 3.4 bWAR—numbers far above what you could expect from the rest of a dismal crop of free agents at the position, such as Freddy Galvis and Jose Iglesias. The upside may be buried under layers of scar tissue and surgical tape, but Tulowitzki has more of it than any other option available, and it’ll come cheap.
We won’t know which version of Troy Tulowitzki the Yankees will get until spring training, and neither will they. The hope will be, after so many lost years for a transcendent talent, that he can turn back the clock and find some semblance of that 2011 self. The likelihood of that, though, doesn’t feel particularly high.