Even with perfect hindsight, it was certainly a stunner out of nowhere.
Alex Anthopoulos acquired a 30-year-old, four-time All-Star shortshop with five guaranteed years, a team option and roughly $100-million left on his contract from a team with a disappointing record looking towards the future. While talent-wise he is definitely an immediate upgrade, the one huge red flag is a history of injuries both major and minor that resulted in an average of only 114 games played in the previous four years and diminished defensive ability. Especially now that he'll be playing over 50% of his games on unforgiving turf.
No, I'm not talking about this morning's blockbuster acquisition of Troy Tulowitzki. I'm talking about 2012's blockbuster acquisition of Jose Reyes. But one can easily be forgiven the confusion, for some of the parallels are eerily similar.
Let's be clear: the two moves are not completely apples-to-apples. As good as Reyes was up to his age-30 season--and he was a really, really good--Tulowitzki was even better. Whereas Reyes was a
league average bit above league average
On top of that on-field difference, this trade also gets them out of about $50 million owed to Reyes over the same period as Tulowitzki, so the net new commitment is only about $50 million. Part of this is bailing out of a past mistake. But Tulowtizki is probably a bigger injury risk, having only played 350 games since 2013. They're also giving up premium prospects going back: Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro and apparently a third prospect unnamed as at time I wrote this [Editor's Note: The third minor leaguer was revealed to be Jesus Tinoco.]. The cost and risk is even higher than when Reyes was acquired.
If those prospects were free agents, what would they get on the open market? Impossible to say, but it would be substantial. Touki Toussaint was taken a couple picks after Hoffman, and he was essentially sold for $10-million in what was considered a horrible sale. Yoan Lopez was offered $9 million, most of which would have been taxed at 50%. Conservatively, I'd think Castro would get at least $15 million, and Hoffman $20 million. Another good prospect, and that probably at least offsets the difference in salary if the first two don't.
With perfect hindsight, it's pretty obvious that acquiring Jose Reyes was a mistake. He missed time in each of his three seasons with the Blue Jays, his walk rate and power fell, and most obviously he either continued his defensive decline or had his deficiencies seriously exposed on turf. It was a broad based decline and while Reyes still had positive value, the dollars tied up in his contract could have been deployed elsewhere to greater effect.
On the subject of defensive decline, is Tulowitzki likely to follow a different path than Reyes? This will be an important determinant of how well the trade works out. Below is a chart averaging UZR/150 and DRS/150 on a trailing three-year basis for both Reyes and Tulowitzki:
Troy Tulowitzki was much better at the same age to start with, but the magnitude of the late-20s decline is similar. There's a broad levelling off the last couple years and/or small uptick this year, but with all the missed time it's a smaller sample size. Should the decline continue or the turf not be friendly, there's real risk of Tulowitzki becoming a defensive liability.
It's hard to not to like adding a truly elite player like Tulowitzki, especially to the elite core that the Blue Jays already have over the next couple seasons. But the costs cannot be ignored either, because eventually the piper must be paid. And so one must consider the possibility that the Jays are merely re-setting the clock. That they are once again acquiring a player with much past glory, but with a body worn down by the sands of time and the strain of seasons past, at an age consistent with the onset of precipitous decline in any event. That they are paying a pretty penny for past production, insufficient weighting the risks to achieving future production.
At the end of the day, this deal is essentially betting on how well Tulowitzki ages into his 30s. If he ages well, like a fine wine, the Jays should enjoy a few more elite seasons, and then some very good season. If he doesn't, then they've just set history up to repeat itself. In two or three years we'll be discussing how no one would even take the contract, possibility while prospects sent away are excelling on the cheap.
I wish I had a degree of confidence one way or the other. Aging curves can give us broad expectations, but on an individual level it's a very fickle thing, often seeming arbitrary and capricious. But that's the bet to which Alex nthopoulos has committed the Blue Jays, and likely on which he's staked his job. After all, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.