Rockies rush into Tulo extension

Publish date:

Hindsight, of course, will be 20-20, but it now may not be until the year 2020 that the Rockies are afforded the luxury of evaluating whether the lavish contract extension they just handed to Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki was a smart investment.

There may be a lot of positives to the contract -- which, in essence, is now a 10-year deal worth $157.75 million -- as Tulowitzki is coming off a career year and clearly wants to stay in Denver as the face of the franchise. It's also good for the competitive balance of baseball for stars of mid- and small-market teams to stay put in their free-agent years, rather than migrate to the big spenders.

"It was the right thing to do," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said during Tuesday's press conference. "We believe in character, team and integrity.''

But timing is everything, and the timing of this extension is all wrong.

Tulowitzki's previous contract already had him signed for the next three seasons -- through 2013 -- for a total of $23.75 million, with a $15 million club option for 2014 (or $2 million buyout).

Given his service time (a little more than four years), that's a fair contract, meaning the Rockies needn't have worried that they were short-changing their franchise player. At the time he signed it in Jan. 2008, it was the largest contract in history for a player shy of two years of major-league experience.

This new contract replaces the option year and keeps Tulowitzki in purple and black for seven additional seasons, paying him $134 million from 2014 through '20, during which time he will be between the ages of 29 through 35.

With star players, it's natural to look past the final year of a contract and wonder about the future. So much of a team's direction is dictated by its best player or two -- without a star, it's harder to attract more talent and continue to compete. Tulowitzki noted his eagerness to sign such a contract was to avoid the distractions that plagued former teammate Matt Holliday, who was the subject of several trade rumors as he entered the final year of his contract in Colorado before the team dealt him to Oakland, which subsequently traded him to St. Louis.

But in this case there was no clamor to secure the future and lock in Tulowitzki. He already was locked in.

What was the logic of racing to give this contract? Why not wait to see how he performs the next two seasons and then offer the extension before 2013, which would still be a full year before his deal expired?

Colorado has been spending about $80 million annually on payroll and now will give one player $20 million per year. Sure, its budget may be higher by the time that happens in 2015, but the Rockies have eliminated most of their ability to reassess and be flexible whether one player is worth that much money. At least Tulowitzki did not receive a no-trade clause.

And they've now likely priced themselves out of the Carlos Gonzalez sweepstakes. Their just-turned-25-year-old outfielder, who finished third in the MVP balloting, won't be a free agent until 2015 -- the same year Tulowitzki begins receiving his $20 million yearly paycheck -- making it difficult to retain both, presuming Gonzalez continues to blossom into a superstar. It already would have been difficult for the Rockies to keep both, but now they no longer have a choice.

The timing is especially curious because it came on the same day the club re-signed free-agent starter Jorge de la Rosa to a three-year contract. If the Rockies were simply making a statement with the Tulowitzki contract about bolstering their payroll, they could have done so with the de la Rosa signing.

This may turn out to be a great contract for the Rockies, but one has to wonder why they would negotiate such a deal when Tulowitzki was so far removed from his own free agency and -- most importantly -- at his most marketable. Kudos to agent Paul Cohen for his sense of timing on that count. Consider what Tulowitzki accomplished in 2010:

• He was named to his first All-Star team.

•He won his first Gold Glove.

• He won his first Silver Slugger.

• He finished fifth in the MVP voting for the second straight season.

• He batted over .300 for the first time (.315), had his third season of at least 24 home runs and 92 RBIs and did so while playing only 122 games after missing six weeks with a broken wrist.

• He finished the season with an historic flourish: In a 16-game stretch in early September, he batted .394 with 14 home runs and 33 RBIs as the Rockies went 13-3 and made up six games in the NL West. His 40 RBIs in the month were a league record.

That September performance is especially important because it alleviated any lingering fears about the long-term effects of Tulowitzki's wrist injury -- an ailment that hampered another recent All-Star shortstop seemingly destined for greatness in Nomar Garciaparra.

Tulowitzki idolized Garciaparra and Jeter in his formative teenage years -- Tulo not coincidentally wore Nomar's No. 5 while at Long Beach State and currently wears Jeter's No. 2 with the Rockies -- and those two present diverging examples of what can happen to a 20-something hotshot shortstop.

The good scenario for the Rockies is that Tulowitzki performs like Jeter, who until 2010 produced at a very high level and now enters free agency as a 36-year-old. This new contract for Tulowitzki will take him to the same age.

But what if Tulowitzki turns out like Nomar? Garciaparra's offensive peak was higher than the season Tulowitzki just enjoyed. While Tulo had a career-high OPS+ of 138 this past season -- OPS+ is on-base plus slugging percentage adjusted for the league average and for ballpark factors -- Garciaparra had three seasons with higher figures before his wrist injury, which coincidentally happened at roughly the same age as Tulowitzki's. Garciaparra, however, later suffered from any number of other muscle injuries and his career was never the same.

One has to wonder whether the Rockies learned anything from the nine-year, $141.5-million contract they gave first baseman Todd Helton in March 2001, when he was 27, though the deal didn't begin until 2003 when Helton was 29. For six of the eight years he's completed of that contract, Helton produced at a very high level, though in 2010 he showed signs of serious decline.

But Colorado signed him to an additional two years before this past season, extending his deal through 2013 and turning $13.1 million of the agreement into deferred money, to be paid at 3 percent interest from 2014 until 2023. In other words Helton will be on the Rockies' payroll even longer than Tulowitzki, who is 11 years his junior.

So on a day that Tulowitzki affirmed that he wants to be a lifelong Rockie -- a day that should be cause for celebration -- there's a little uneasiness that maybe such a partnership was a little rushed.