Three years ago, the Toronto Blue Jays announced the release of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki in the middle of that year’s Winter Meetings. That brought to a resolution a mini-drama sparked by provocative comments from Ross Atkins a few days earlier on Tulowitzki’s future (perhaps or even likely designed to bring matters to a head):
Candidly, and I think Troy would agree, that’s not likely, He will have to over-achieve to play shortstop at an above-average level with above-average offensive performance for 140 games. That would be unlikely based on what has occurred in the last two and a half years, but that doesn’t mean he’s not going to do it...But candidly, I don’t think that’s likely.
At that point of course, Tulowitzki hadn’t appeared in uniform since incurring a severe ankle injury on July 28, 2017 that cost him the last couple months of 2017 and all of 2018, at which point he was already struggling to a 79 wRC+. The Blue Jays were in full teardown mode, looking to the future and opening opportunities for younger players (though they ultimately signed Freddy Galvis to replace Tulo).
The release left the Blue Jays on the hook for the remaining $38-million on Tulowitzki’s contract: $20-million in 2019, $14-million in 2020, and a $4-million buyout on his 2021 team option.
In January 2019, Tulowitzki ended up signing with the Yankees for the $555,000 MLB minimum, paving the way for what felt like the inevitable resurrection in pinstripes. The feeling was even more inexorable when he homered on his first swing with the Yankees off Marcus Stroman in the first spring training game. He homered the first weekend of the regular season, but in a familiar scene went on the IL with a calf strain a week into the season.
That was ultimately the end, and on July 25, Tulowitzki announced his retirement from baseball (which incidentally may have served to cost the Jays a little more; normally a player who retires ceases to be paid, but that would simply be what the Yankees were paying which came out of what the Jays paid him).
While that may have seemingly closed the door on the Tulowitzki chapter of Blue Jays history, it turns out the story didn’t quite end there and instead there’s an interesting post-script. That release unexpectedly ended up quite profitable for Tulowitzki, netting him almost $9-million, albeit for reasons completely unforeseeable at the time.
When the 2020 MLB season was upended by the pandemic, the owners and MLBPA agreed on a plan whereby player salaries would be reduced in proportion to the schedule played. That ended up a significant factor in the season being just 60 games rather than closer to 100, as players then only had to be paid 37% (60/162) of their contracted salaries.
Had Tulowitzki not been released and remained on the roster, even just on the IL, his $14-million would have been reduced like all other players. He would have instead been paid $5.185-million, saving the Jays almost $9-million (one-quarter of what was left). Initially, I assumed this is what would happen, and wondered that’s what allowed the Jays to go out at the deadline and add salary.
But as Ken Rosenthal reported in May 2020, that didn’t apply to inactive players who had previously been released from guaranteed contracts (being released meant they were no longer to perform the contracted baseball services, hence games being cancelled is not grounds to lose the contracted salary).
As such, in collecting the entire $14-million, Tulowitzki was paid more than any active player who actually played in 2020. Mike Trout and Gerrit Cole had the highest salaries at $36-million, but pro-rated to the 60 game season was only $13.33-million. Perversely, it was better for a player to have been better to have been released outright as a sunk cost than have been kept as a marginal player. For example, by not releasing Albert Pujols even though he had not been a productive player in three years, the Angels saved over $18-million of his $29-million 2020 salary.
The Jays have been in a similar territory before. In December 1983, they acquired Willie Aikens from Kansas City and signed him to a two year contract (he and others had been suspended for the 1984 seasons for drug use, but were expected to have it shortened). His production cratered in 1984 and after similar struggles in 1985, the Jays sent him outright to Syracuse.
When the players went on strike that August, the minor league season continued unaffected. Aikens reported $600,000 salary per Marty York (in the Globe and Mail, 7/30/1985, page 18) was the highest minor league salary and made him the highest paid professional baseball player for the duration of the two strike. Curiously, according to the same, Luis Leal (optioned to AAA on a guaranteed contract) was also unaffected even though he remained a 40-man player part of the union.
It could have been worse, though. Consider the Marlins, who cut Wei Yin Chen loose at the end of November 2019, in hindsight right on the pandemic’s eve (the virus was already circulating of course). Had they waited a couple months, they’d have ended up saving $14-million; instead Chen ended up the highest paid MLB player in 2020. Similarly, the Yankees released Jacoby Ellsbury right around the same time on the grounds he vitiated his contract by receiving unauthorized medical treatment. That’s still subject to a grievance, and if the Yankees ultimately are on the hook, they’d have saved over $13-million just sticking him on the IL.