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Alfonso Soriano, the Washington Nationals and a solution to the Troy Tulowitzki problem

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How do you solve a problem like Troy Tulowitzki?

Washington Nationals v New York Mets
Alfonso Soriano of the Washington Nationals conducts an interview with the media before the New York Mets Home Opener against the Washington Nationals on April 3, 2006 at Shea Stadium in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.
Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

It was a spring training game. It didn’t matter.

Frank Robinson, wearing a dark blue and red jersey with a stenciled “DC” in the left-hand corner, emerged from the Washington Nationals dugout in Viera, Florida. He touted an emotionless face — a face that is all to familiar to major league managers — as he walked towards home plate. The crowd at Space Coast Stadium was confused. There were only eight players on the field and Alfonso Soriano was nowhere to be seen.

Robinson spoke to the home plate umpire about a last-minute lineup change, and moments later it was made clear by a public address announcer: Soriano wouldn't play.

Soriano was the ninth player, the only one hidden from the view of 4,554. He was penciled in at left field for the Nationals on March 20th, 2006, and he refused to play.

The Nationals, after trading for Soriano in the 2005-2006 offseason, had no room for the player who had spent all but two games at second base in the 2005 season. Jose Vidro, who played in 87 games for Washington in 2005 and hit .275 with an OBP of .339, would be the starting second baseman, Nationals executives told Soriano, and Soriano would to move to left field.

But in a March 20 Grapefruit League game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Soriano didn’t.

Just minutes later general manager Jim Bowden rested in his office, contemplating the possibilities.

"The player refused to take the field, which we believe is a violation of his contract," Bowden said to the Associated Press.

"We told him if we get to Thursday and he refuses to play left field, we told him at that point we will request that the commissioner's office place him on the disqualified list, at that time -- no pay, no service time.”

The disqualified list is a rarely-used archaic piece of Major League Baseball legislature for players who violate the terms set out in his contract, usually involving “a refusal to render service and/or an unexcused absence.

"If he refuses to play and goes home,” Bowden continued, “and the commissioner's office accepts our request to place him on the disqualified list, then at that point, if he were to sit out this year, he would not be a free agent, he would stay our property because his service time would stay the same."

If Soriano refuses to play and satisfy the terms of his contract, with approval of the Commissioner of Baseball, he would be placed on the disqualified list.

“No pay, no service time.”

Two days later, Soriano played left field in an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals, and in 2006, Soriano played all of his 158 games in left field.


On July 28th, 2015, Alex Anthopoulos pulled the trigger.

He was all-in on 2015. It had been too long since the Toronto Blue Jays last competed and, despite fears about the potential of prospect Jeff Hoffman, headed to the Colorado Rockies, it would be worth it for just a few seasons of competition and postseason magic.

In Troy Tulowitzki’s first 15 games on the roster, the Blue Jays went 14-1.

Two years later, the player who jolted energy into a .500 team at the trade deadline and led it to an appearance in the ALCS has become a burden to the city he ignited.

Plagued by injuries, he played in just 66 games in 2017, struggling with a hamstring injury in April and May. On July 28th, exactly two years after his trade to the Blue Jays, Tulowitzk iti slipped on the first base bag.

He was out for the season with ligament damage.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Toronto Blue Jays
Troy Tulowitzki of the Toronto Blue Jays is helped off the field by trainers George Poulis and Mike Frostad after injuring his ankle in the third inning during MLB game action against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Rogers Centre on July 28, 2017 in Toronto, Canada.
Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

In the time he played, his on-field production was a shadow of his former self. A .249 batting average, .300 on-base percentage. 40 strikeouts, 17 walks and seven home runs.

0.1 offensive WAR. 0.4 defensive WAR.

In 2017, Tulowitzki earned more than $300,000 for every game he played, and he’s being paid $20 million for the next two seasons.

The Blue Jays have little they can do to cope with the downfall of Tulowitzki. The possibility of a trade, without eating massive amounts money from his remaining $54 million contract, is nonexistent.

Tulowitzki’s declining defensive ability led some to speculate on the possibility of a position change, an idea that was quickly shut down by Tulowitzki.

“I'll start this thing as a shortstop and I'll finish it as a shortstop,” Tulowitzki told Gregor Chisholm of MLB.com this summer. “I've lived this position. I've dreamed of playing shortstop since I was a young, young kid. All of my idols were shortstops and I take a lot of pride in it."

In an interview with Toronto media, Tulowitzki was perhaps even more firm about his position choice.

“I take a lot of pride in [being a shortstop] and trying to be really, really good at it.

“So, no.”

In August of 2014, The Denver Post raised the same question to Tulowitzki.

“No, I won’t move [positions],” Tulowitzki said. “I will retire before I move.”

But does Tulowitzki have a choice?

No.

Yes, it would be atrocious for public image. Yes, it would turn one of Toronto’s biggest stars and highest-paid players against the team, and perhaps ward off potential free agent signings. It could disenfranchise other players on the Blue Jays' roster. It would not be pretty.

Still, it could be worth it.

If the team penciled Tulowitzki in at third base — or second base, or first base, or a corner outfield position — the Blue Jays could even the lopsided contract owed to Tulowitzki over the next three seasons.

It wouldn’t be a clean or pretty process by any means, but by playing Tulowitzki elsewhere or threatening to place him on the disqualified list, Toronto could avoid the massive monetary waste that seems all but certain for the immediate future.

The goal, in this case, is not to make Tulowitzki retire or even be placed on the disqualified list. As with Soriano in 2006, the goal is simply to force the hand of Tulowitzki and have him play a position other than shortstop, which he has a legal obligation to do.

If this backfired and Tulowitzki was indeed placed on the disqualified list, it would be disastrous for the Blue Jays. Not only would they permanently damage their relationship with Tulowitzki and other players, his contract would remain the same and he would still be owed the same amount of money, but he'd be one year older.

In all likelihood, it won’t happen. Tulowitzki is nearly guaranteed to play out his days in Toronto, fading into anonymity as a case study for future teams.

But for the Blue Jays, there is a way out.


Follow Mark Colley on Twitter @MarkColley. Mark can be reached at markarcolley@gmail.com.