What began as a baseball bombshell on a hot July night in 2015 ends with what feels like a footnote in the darkness of December. Troy Tulowitzki’s tenure with the Blue Jays is over; and as it turns out, it’s technically been over for 17 months as he hasn’t appeared in a game since July 28, 2017 - Exactly two years to the day after he was traded to Toronto. The transaction ends the latest chapter in Tulo’s complicated career which has featured pain, passion, wonder, amazement, frustration and melancholy.
With the Jays, Tulo provided just 4.7 total bWAR, a mark he eclipsed six different times in a single season with the Rockies during the eight years prior to the trade. Unfortunately, Jays’ fans never got to see this generational talent at his peak.
If we estimate the cost of a win on the free agent market at $9 million a pop, Tulo’s 4.7 WAR comes out to $42.3 million in value. Couple that with the $106 million contract the team took on ($38 million of which they have to eat going forward), and it leaves the Jays with -$63.7 million of surplus value in the trade. Normally that would leave you as the clear loser in pretty much any transaction, but as Matthew Pouliot pointed out, this deal turned out to be all kinds of awful for both sides:
Worst big trade ever?— Matthew Pouliot (@matthewpouliot) December 11, 2018
July 28, 2015: Tulowitzki, LaTroy Hawkins to Toronto, Jose Reyes, Miguel Castro, Jeff Hoffman, Jesus Tinoco to Colorado.
Tulo: 4.7 WAR for $106 million
Hawkins: 0.0 WAR
Reyes: -1.0 WAR for $52 million
Castro: -0.5 WAR
Hoffman: -0.4 WAR
On the Rockies end, they acquired -1.9 bWAR (-$17.1 million of surplus value) to go along with Jose Reyes’ toxic $52 million contract, making their end of the deal worth a -$69.1 million in surplus value (I’m not even going to count the league minimum contracts of the prospects at this point). The book isn’t quite closed here for the Rockies as they could still get something out of Hoffman or Jesus Tinoco, but 2019 is probably the make or break year for both of them in that organization.
It would be really easy to just chalk this trade up as horrible for both sides, but it was also, in a very weird way, a win for both sides. The teams ended up trading what appears to be equally large piles of negative surplus value, but they both got rid of the negative surplus value while they were in contention. The Blue Jays got rid of the toxic Jose Reyes during their playoffs runs in 2015 and 2016 while Tulo was still worth what he was being paid, and the Rockies didn’t have to pay the sour slice of Tulo’s contract once their contention window opened in 2017 and 2018. In other words, both clubs benefited from the re-positioning of negative surplus value, even though they were never truly able to escape paying the bill.
Of course, the Blue Jays never turned their LCS appearances into a World Series title and the Rockies used the cash saved in their contention window to purchase Ian Desmond, so this perspective only goes so far.
Perhaps the most memorable thing about the Tulo trade was its timing. The tremor sent shock waves throughout the baseball universe, and produced a chain reaction tsunami that thrusted the Jays into an immediate 14-1 streak during the first 15 games after Tulo first donned a Toronto uniform. Whether or not Tulo was the wave itself or just a piece of debris that came riding in on it will always be up for debate, but it’s pretty clear the trade represents a line of demarcation from the club being a wallflower floating around .500 and stumbling down a path to missing the post season for the 22nd straight time, and the Jays instantaneously morphing into the loudest and most exciting team in baseball that ultimately culminated in the most exciting seventh inning in MLB history.
Tulo’s biggest contributions during this stretch were his defense, and the confidence he instilled in the pitching staff each time he made a miraculous play to turn a hit into an out. He did not make a single error for nine months after he was traded (not hyperbole). Anything hit near him literally turned into an automatic out.
Shortstop went from a defensive horror show starring Jose Reyes to a position of production and energy overnight. It wasn’t just the fact that Tulo generated more defensive runs saved in a mere 39 games than everybody on the 2015 Blue Jays other than Kevin Pillar, Josh Donaldson or Ryan Goins did for the entire season, it was also the way he was doing it. As someone who was used to watching Tulo make his patented spin moves and jumps throws on a nightly basis, it was a treat to watch a blizzard of amazed comments pop up in the games threads every time he executed a move people hadn’t seen before. Even more importantly, the reaction of the crowd in Rogers Centre every time he made one of those plays was unmistakable. This, like so many other things that went right during the second half of 2015 for Toronto, helped turned the atmosphere inside to dome into something special enough that it probably made thousands of new, young, lifetime Blue Jays fans.
Offensively, there was much less to celebrate as his hip surgery from 2014 robbed most of the thunder in his bat, but there were two pretty key moments that stood out for me. One was in Game 3 of the 2015 ALDS. Tulo came to the plate with two out and two on in the top of the sixth inning of a 2-0 tussle and the Jays one loss away from elimination. They were leading, but Chris Colabello had just grounded into a crippling 1-2-3 double play with the bases loaded. It was the fourth consecutive inning the Jays had grounded into a double play, and they were one out away from turning what by that point should have been about an 8-0 lead into a white knuckle affair with Marco Estrada reaching the end of his rope and the bullpen taxed from the 14-inning marathon in Game 2.
And then ... BOOM!!! Three-run home run from Tulo. That 2-0 lead becomes a 5-0 lead, Tulo posts a .235 WPA for the game, and the Jays play loose for rest of the series. They won the game 5-1, so perhaps they didn’t need the jolt, but do you really want to see how that game might have played out with the Jays stuck on two runs? Just imagine: If they lose here, there’s no Game 5, no Bautista bat flip, no single defining moment of fandom for a whole generation of Blue Jay fans.
The other moment was Tulo’s two-out, eighth inning RBI single that gave the Jays a 2-1 win at Fenway Park in Game 162 of the 2016 season that awarded them home field advantage over Baltimore in the Wild Card game. Without that win, the Wild Card game is played in Camden Yards instead of Rogers Centre, and because the Blue Jays would be batting in the top of the inning, the world wouldn’t have got to witness Buck Showalter’s hour long brain fart as would have used Zach Britton in extra innings instead of Ubaldo Jimenez. This means no Encarnacion walk-off home run, no Donaldson Dash, no beating the Texas Rangers again, and no going back to the ALCS again.
For Tulo, his most important contributions in a Jays uniforms might have been the things he did in a chain of events to help allow other moments to happen. The trade itself made the Blue Jays clear buyers and opened up the door to trade for David Price. His glove turned a position of weakness into a position of strength and gave the crowd more energy and the pitching staff more confidence, and some of his hits quietly set the stage for the bigger, more heroic, and more memorable knocks to happen in the next game or two during critical stages of the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Fast forward to present day and this might once again be true. Tulo’s release clears the middle infield for the younger players and gives the team more roster flexibility moving forward. For Tulo to have been helpful for the Jays at this point, they would have had to give him a few hundred at bats, prove he’s healthy, and then see enough production out of him to be able to trade him and his remaining contract for any sort of value. In addition to the obvious elephant in the room of there being no guarantee that will happen, it also means that a long list of younger middle infield options would be getting fewer at bats in 2019 at the major league level. Bats that have a chance to be engines during Toronto’s next contention window.
Tulo on the other hand was never going to be part of that next contention window. His chances at a title in a Blue Jays uniform, along with Jose Bautista’s, Edwin Encarnacion’s, Josh Donaldson’s and Russell Martin’s all died at the end of the 2016 season.
For the Blue Jays, that era becomes a smaller and smaller object in the rear view mirror as the organization pushes towards the debuts of an exciting batch of new prospects. Boy does that future look bright.
For Tulo, he gets a fresh start, the chance to sign with any team he wants, and the opportunity to pick a club he thinks can win that title he desperately wants. (Oh yeah, and that $38 million. That too.)
As the Tulo era in Toronto comes to a close, I want to take a moment to thank everybody in the Bluebird Banter community for being so wonderful to me over the last three and a half years. When Tulo was first traded from the Rockies, my soul was absolutely crushed. It didn’t just mean seeing my favorite player leave my favorite team, it also ultimately meant me having to give up writing for Purple Row (a community full of long-time friends that I will always love with the bottom of my heart and still miss today). To have Tom and the staff and the entire community welcome me with open arms during some of my darkest days as a fan will always be appreciated more than you will ever know. Thank you so, so much for letting me come along for the ride.