When you read the headline of this post, you’re probably thinking “oh great, another silly hot take. OF COURSE Tulo is a franchise player!” And while I agree that Troy Tulowitzki is a fantastic player when he’s on the field, I don’t think he’s a guy that you can build your franchise around, like the Rockies have for the last seven seasons.
Take this tweet from ESPN’s Buster Olney earlier today, illustrating Tulowitzki’s injury issues.
Troy Tulowitzki needs season-ending hip surgery. By the end of this season, he will have missed 343 games over the last seven years.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) August 14, 2014
343 games over seven seasons is good for 30.2% of Colorado’s games. Imagine only having your “franchise player” in the lineup for 113 games a year. Well, that’s what missing 30% of your team’s games will leave you at. For as great as Tulowitzki was this year, accruing 5.1 fWAR in just 91 games, you can’t reach the playoffs when your franchise cornerstone can’t stay on the field. Imagine where the Angels would be without Mike Trout. Think about the Mariners without Robinson Cano. Take Miguel Cabrera away from the Tigers, and ponder about Detroit’s place in the standings. Wouldn’t be pretty, would it?
The Tulowitzki situation reminds me of another franchise cornerstone that went bust – Ken Griffey Jr. in Cincinnati. When the Reds acquired Griffey from the Mariners before the 2000 season, he was supposed to be the guy that would take the team to the next level. I think you all know the general story from there – Griffey couldn’t stay on the field, and the Reds finished above .500 just once (his debut season with the club, 2000) and never made the playoffs with him in town.
Of course, Griffey’s injury issues were actually more pronounced than Tulowitzki’s. He missed a shocking 460 games during his Reds career, missing 32.7% (nearly a third) of his team’s games as his career ended with a whimper rather than a roar.
The comparisons between the two aren’t perfect. Griffey’s first year with the Reds came at the age of 30, while Tulowitzki won’t turn 30 until this October. By and large, Griffey was healthy during his pre-Cincinnati career, with his only significant injury coming in the 1995 strike-shortened season. Tulowitzki hasn’t been healthy during his 20s. He’s missed time with a litany of injuries, including a strained quad, a broken hamate bone, a balky groin, a broken rib, and most recently, a torn labrum in his hip. At least Griffey’s injuries were mainly confined to his legs.
But anyway, back to the major point. Is Tulowitzki a franchise player? Well, the Rockies are paying him as such – he’s owed a minimum of $118 million through 2020. Since signing that ten-year contract in November of 2010, Tulowitzki has only played in 410 games, and when this season concludes, he’ll have missed 36.8% of the Rockies’ games. They haven’t won more than 74 games in a season since, and it’s looking more and more likely that this year will end with the club reaching 100 losses for the first time.
Obviously, you can’t pin *all* of those Rockies failures on Tulowitzki. Teammate Carlos Gonzalez has been similarly frail, missing 27.5% of the team’s games since 2010 after Thursday morning’s revelation that his 2014 could also be over. But Gonzalez was “only” signed for seven years before the 2011 season, and was guaranteed less than half as much as Tulowitzki. He’s also “only” owed $53 million over the next three years, less than half of what Tulowitzki will earn during the remainder of his contract. The team’s pitching staff has resembled a dumpster fire for almost all of Tulowitzki’s time with the team, especially when focusing on their rotation. Todd Helton was a shell of himself while Tulowitzki was in town.
When considering Tulowitzki’s standing as a player you can build around, you have to think about his value to other teams. The Cardinals have been lusting after Tulowitzki for awhile, but would they be better off with Tulowitzki playing 110 games for them over the next six years, or would they be better off with someone like Stephen Piscotty or Oscar Tavares in the outfield and guys like Carlos Martinez and Shelby Miller occupying spots in their rotation? Is 110 games worth of Tulowitzki worth 50 or 60 starts from their rotation and 130 (conservatively) games in the outfield?
With most star players, you don’t need to worry about having a suitable caddy for them. Seattle’s not giving a second thought to who will take over at second base if Robinson Cano gets hurt, because Robinson Cano *doesn’t* get hurt. The Rockies have used 11 different players at shortstop for at least ten innings, including Tulowitzki, since 2010. None of them have even half a win above replacement level. This year, the bulk of the time has gone to Josh Rutledge (a below average hitter who can’t field) and Charlie Culberson (who can kind of field but can’t hit). Going from the MVP front-runner to a player barely above replacement level is a huge drop off, and that’s something any team that wants to build around Tulowitzki will also need to take in mind.
I know that the point is getting lost through the weeds at this point. Troy Tulowitzki is an outstanding player, but the fact that he can’t remain healthy is a death blow to his status as a franchise cornerstone. Two of the three playoff berths in Rockies history have come in Tulowitzki’s two most healthy seasons. He’s a fantastic player, but at this point in his career, the Rockies can’t build around him as “the guy” anymore. Tulowitzki needs to be *a* piece on the team rather than *the* piece on the team. If he gets hurt, the team needs to have a suitable backup plan immediately ready to go. The plan needs to change from “if Tulo stays healthy, maybe we can sniff .500!” to “if Tulo stays healthy, we’re winning the World Series”.
It’s time for the Rockies to move on from “Troy Tulowitzki and company” to “a legitimately good baseball team, featuring Troy Tulowitzki when healthy”. It’s a tough pill to swallow for the organization and their fans, but if they want to compete in a tough NL West, they’re going to need to adapt and move away from being the Tulo Show.