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A declining Troy Tulowitzki puts Blue Jays in a bind

Toronto Blue Jays Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (2) reacts during the MLB regular season game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox on April 18, 2017, at Rogers Centre in Toronto, ON, Canada. (Photograph by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire)
Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire

Is Troy Tulowitzki done?

In one sense, absolutely not. He has another three years left on his contract — there’s a fourth year, a team option, but we can safely assume at this point, barring a miracle, that won’t be picked up — and he’d be a fool not to collect that $59 million remaining in guaranteed money. At 32, it’s almost inconceivable that Tulowitzki would retire now and let the Toronto Blue Jays off the hook for the remainder of his deal. He’s not too far removed from being one of the best shortstops in baseball.

Not too far removed in time, that is. In another sense, there’s an absolute gap between the player Tulowitzki is now and the player he was with the Colorado Rockies. Even when he was hitting, there was always doubt that surrounded Tulowitzki due to where he played.

When he hit .309/.385/.553 (.938 OPS, 137 OPS+) from 2009 to 2014, many wondered how good he’d really be if he had to play his home games somewhere other than Coors Field. This is the whisper campaign — the doubt — that follows every player who has worn Rockies colors for any prolonged period of time. It is the reason Larry Walker isn’t yet in the Hall of Fame, despite clearly deserving enshrinement. The narrative of the Coors-made hitter is simply too strong to resist. Too many men like Andres Galarraga have played there.

That narrative was nonsense, of course. This is how Tulowitzki hit away from Coors those six years: .859 OPS, .863 OPS, .881 OPS, .908 OPS, .850 OPS, .811 OPS. Is that as good as a .938 OPS? Of course not. But a shortstop with Tulowitzki’s defense putting up a line somewhere in the .850-.880 range would have been entirely acceptable for a club that, when the Jays acquired him, was searching for continuity at shortstop.

Colorado got Jose Reyes in the Tulowitzki deal, and he went from below average to putrid. He turned into another sort of disaster entirely, his domestic violence incident and his inability to perform earning him a flat release from his contract and a crawl home to the New York Mets, the only team willing to put up with him at the moment. The future of Tulowitzki is substantially less clear.

It wasn’t the curse of Coors that did him in; it was his own body. Since coming from Colorado to Toronto, whether due to the change in field surface, lingering injuries already weighing on his body that medicals didn’t catch (or did catch and were ignored), age or just plain bad luck, Tulowitzki has only managed one mostly healthy season in 2016, and he has never, at any point, been the kind of player he once was for the Rockies.

TORONTO, ON - JULY 26: Toronto Blue Jays Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (2) bats during the MLB regular season game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Oakland Athletics on July 26, 2017, at Rogers Centre in Toronto, ON, Canada. (Photograph by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire)

(Photograph by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire)

At the moment, he is once again on the 10-day disabled list with a lower-body injury — most of his injuries come below the waist — and out for an indefinite period of time. Shortstop is being handled by a combination of Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney, both of whom more fairly belong on a Triple A roster somewhere; at most, Barney should be a utilityman. And a trade that looked great on paper for a win-now Blue Jays team in 2015 is now an utter disaster.

Can Tulo come back? Sure he can. Anything can happen, and the Jays will give him every opportunity to try to keep from cutting bait with him like the Rockies did with Reyes. Tulowitzki’s conduct off the field has always been immaculate, and he hasn’t put them in that severe of a position yet. But there’s no team that would be willing to take the full contract off Toronto’s hands at the moment, and the only circumstance under which that might come up in the near future is if he has an astounding first half to begin the 2018 season while the team itself is garbage, prompting Jays management to sell off Josh Donaldson, Tulowitzki, Justin Smoak and anything else not nailed down. This seems like an unlikely proposition, though there are scenarios where a modified buy-and-sell could occur.

To come back, Tulowitzki needs to stay healthy. The injuries have already taken their toll — he doesn’t move as well as he used to in the field, and he’s only going to be losing a step from here. One might assume the best path forward for him and Toronto might be to follow in the steps of another Blue Jay whose contract was a bust, Vernon Wells: see if they can find a particularly optimistic — or clueless, depending on how charitable you want to be to that Angels front office — club to take him off their hands. In that circumstance, the Jays couldn’t count on lightning striking twice and a guy like Mike Napoli coming back in the deal, but if he does, they’d do well not to trade him this time. Especially not for an aging, out-of-shape closer.

But even if the perfect deal does appear, the Jays need Tulo’s permission to move him. When they dealt for his contract from the Rockies, it activated full no-trade privileges on the remaining years of the deal. If it’s the choice between a trade and a release, then the Jays might be able to get him to waive his rights, but that cuts the knees right out from under Toronto in terms of negotiating a return. No, the only way Tulo leaves Toronto now is if he’s playing out of his mind and he’s willing to waive his no-trade to go to a contender.

That, unfortunately, is the kind of player Tulowitzki is now: a hard-luck, fading veteran or, if you prefer, a comeback player waiting to happen. Either way, his season is all but over, and the Blue Jays are stuck with him. All that’s left for both him and the team is next year, and another contractually obligated chance to make this work.

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