Free Agent Signing Reaction: Troy Tulowitzki

As most of the Yankee Universe is aware by now, the Yankees have signed former National League MVP, Troy Tulowitzki, to a 1 year contract at the league minimum salary following his release from the Toronto Blue Jays.  Interestingly, there were some very strong opinions regarding this signing on multiple media sources, particularly in light of the fact that this signing is for the league minimum salaries.  I discussed some of my thoughts last week on the Bronx Beat Podcast Episode #175, but I thought that I would expand on my thoughts here.

Injury History

Some players are labeled as injury-prone, both fairly and unfairly.  Troy Tulowitzki is very clearly in this category of player.  While Tulowitzki was on a potential Hall of Fame trajectory in his 20s, injuries have all but eliminated that likelihood.  Here are the number of games that Tulowitzki has played per season since 2012:

2012: 47

2013: 126

2014: 91

2015: 128

2016: 131

2017: 66

2018: 0

Tulowitzki has missed time for a varying range of serious injuries, including broken ribs, torn hip labrum, cracked shoulder blade, various lower body sprains and strains, and most recently a lost season in 2018 due to bone spur removal in his right ankle.  Tulowitzki’s injury history is very scary, and it makes it difficult to depend on him for a full season, hence Toronto’s willingness to eat the final years of his deal.  This also potentially creates value for the Yankees, given that they are only obligated to pay him the league minimum this year.

Defense

Despite the many injuries that Tulowitzki has suffered over the years, Tulowitzki was a positive contributor defensively at Shortstop, even as he entered his 30s.  Check out his rDRS (Defensive Runs Saved per 1,200 innings) between 2013 and 2017 (Tulowitzki’s age 28-32 seasons), as pulled from Baseball-Reference.com:

2013: +7

2014: +11

2015 (w/COL): -2

2015 (w/TOR): +21

2016: +11

2017: 0

The only year that Tulowitzki was a neutral defensive player was 2017, an injury-plagued season in which Tulowitzki only played 66 games.  Given the natural progression of up-the-middle defenders, at age 34, is Tulowitzki still a viable defensive shortstop?  The probability is not high, but it is possible for a couple of reasons.  For one, Tulowitzki’s track record is exceptional, so it is possible his aging curve defensively is more graceful than would be generally expected.  Additionally, it is entirely possible that one full season and off-season of rest and recovery could lead to a rejuvenation of sorts for Tulowitzki.  Generally speaking, the first issue that would appear for an aging defensive player up the middle would be loss of range and foot speed.  Tulowitzki has had surgery to remedy long-standing issues with his lower body, and has had a year to rest and regain some agility.  The Yankees clearly saw some sign of rejuvenation during Tulowitzki’s showcase performance at the end of 2018, or they would not have offered him the opportunity to compete for the full-time shortstop role in Didi’s absence.

Offense

Troy Tulowitzki was once one of the most feared hitters in all of baseball.  That made him particularly valuable considering the fact that he also played stellar defense at one of the most demanding defensive positions on the field.  Since Tulowitzki’s trade to the Blue Jays, his offensive production has tailed off significantly.  Per Baseball-Reference.com, here are Tulowitzki’s OPS+ values since his move to the American League:

2015: 89

2016: 102

2017: 80

Obviously, the Yankees would more than settle for Tulowitzki’s total offensive production in 2016 when replacing Didi.  Despite this, some of Tulowitzki’s underlying statistics are very solid for his seasons spent with the Blue Jays:

Statistics Compiled from Baseball-Reference.com. Click the Image to Enlarge.

There are a few interesting points to dig into here.  Tulowitzki, while not as powerful as his early seasons, still showed pop in the AL, most significantly in 2016.  Additionally, Tulowitzki maintained an average-ish strikeout-to-walk ratio, while decreasing his strikeout rate every season, ultimately putting a ton of balls in play during his injury-shortened 2017 season.  Lastly, Tulowitzki posted high line drive rates in each season until 2017.  Hitting is dependent on having a solid base, and Tulowitzki did not have that in 2017, and it is entirely probable that he did not in prior seasons.  If Tulowitzki can maintain his underlying plate discipline rates, and if he is truly healthy, it is entirely possible that the pop and line drive rates will rebound to some extent in 2019.  For what it’s worth, Steamer projects Tulowitzki to rebound at least somewhat offensively in 2019, projecting him to post a .174 ISO while roughly maintaining the walk and strikeout rates he displayed in 2016 and 2017.

Conclusion

Many observers had previously anointed Freddy Galvis as a perfect fill-in at shortstop for Didi Gregorius.  Galvis is a great defender, good clubhouse presence (reportedly), and has some pop at the plate despite very underwhelming contact and plate discipline numbers.  By signing Troy Tulowitzki, the Yanks signed a player who could very well be much better than Galvis in total value in 2019, for much less money than they would have to pay Galvis.  There is risk that Tulowitzki cannot overcome age and injury related decline, but if not?  The Yankees have multiple defense-first SS alternatives on the roster who will be playable until Didi returns.  I think this is a low-risk, potentially medium-yield return for the Yankees at a bargain-basement price.  Replacing Didi Gregorius, a 4-5 WAR shortstop, is not an easy task, but under the circumstances, I think the Yankees did a fine job by grabbing Tulowitzki.  Let’s hope he can regain some of his former glory in pinstripes.