A True Blue (Jay) Blockbuster: Parsing the Rockies’ Long-Anticipated, Utterly Unpredictable Troy Tulowitzki Trade

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You can kind of see what the Rockies were thinking when they agreed to trade LaTroy Hawkins to the Blue Jays for Jose Reyes late last night. Hawkins, MLB’s Methuselah, is close to a replacement-level reliever.1 Reyes was a star as recently as 2011, and a pretty good player as recently as last season. Sure, he’s been average at best in 2015, and he’s baseball’s highest-paid shortstop, making $22 million in 2015, with two more $22 millions to come in 2016 and ’17, and no team would sign him to that contract today. Hawkins, meanwhile, is owed little more than $1 million, not even counting the cash he saves his team’s rookies by buying them suits. The Blue Jays might be offloading a lousy investment, but the Rockies are getting the superior player, and who are we to disparage the Monfort family members for realizing they can’t take their meatpacking money with them when they go to meet their God?

Oh, wait. Troy Tulowitzki was in the deal?

Sorry: My snark setting is still stuck where the Internet’s was around 12:30 a.m. ET on Tuesday, which is when news of the Tulo-to-Toronto blockbuster, maybe the most unexpected major move since, well, Josh Donaldson–to-Toronto, broke.2 Initial reports suggested that Toronto had not only pulled off a salary-dump deal in which it had acquired the better player and the better contract, but that it had done so without surrendering a top prospect. Of course, initial reports are often wrong. Even though the headline on Rockies.com early Tuesday morning read “Rockies send Tulo to Toronto for Reyes,” there’s more to this trade than the major leaguers. Although no money changed hands,3 the Rockies also acquired Blue Jays pitching prospects Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro, and Jesus Tinoco, enough to move the reaction from downtown “What were they thinking?” into the suburbs of “Actually, that sorta makes sense.”

Still, not all of those late-night doubts and double takes are easily dismissed the next morning. For a trade so long in the media’s making, the final act of the Tulowitzki saga came together stealthily, with even the centerpiece being taken by surprise. The first Tulo trade rumors — all of which took the form of denials that there was anything doing — surfaced in the fall of 2012, less than two years after Tulo signed a seven-year extension that he thought would make him a career Rockie. From a competitive perspective — if not a fiscal one that factors in the team’s still-respectable attendance — the Rockies probably would have been better off had they pressed reset right when the speculation started. Tulowitzki has been the best shortstop in baseball over the past two-plus seasons (just as he was for the four seasons before that), but his team is 182-239 over the same span. With his 2015 stats lagging below their usual level, Tulo’s value is lower than it once was, and the Rockies are further from contention than they conceivably could’ve been by now had they traded him for one of 2013’s top prospects.

The returns in trades we’ve prophesied for so long are bound to be disappointing, both because GMs generally aren’t dumb enough to give up the packages we conjure in our minds, and because players in their primes are depreciating assets. The more time we have to daydream, the less likely it is that the real price will come close to the one we first expected. The timing of this trade took the sport by surprise: Compared to last winter, the Tulo talk had seemed to die down. The shortstop’s eventual destination was even stranger than the timing. Until Tulo, there had been a lot of logic to this season’s near-deadline deals: It was obvious in April that the Astros needed a starter, so it made sense that they’d spring for Scott Kazmir. Down one David Wright, and missing a few ticks from Bobby Parnell’s former fastball, the Mets had holes that Juan Uribe and Tyler Clippard could fill. The Royals’ rotation lacked anything approaching an ace: Johnny Cueto, come on down (and face Tulowitzki on Friday). It takes time to adjust to longtime losers becoming buyers, but the players who changed teams in those deals were perfect fits.

Tulo-to-Toronto, another bold, out-of-the-box acquisition by Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos, doesn’t have the same symmetry. The Jays, who were 50-50 at the time of the trade, are the AL’s best-hitting team, in part because they acquired another MVP-type talent on the left side of the infield eight months ago. A team with unreliable starting pitching but a formidable lineup that already includes Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Russell Martin seems like the last one that would want to give up young pitching talent for another big, right-handed bat.

So let’s summarize the conceivable arguments against this trade from Toronto’s perspective, and for it from Colorado’s.

First, the Anti-Toronto Case

jose-reyes-blue-jays-rockies-tradeJamie Squire/Getty Images

Tulo Is in the Midst of a Down Year: This is undeniable: Tulowitzki is having his worst offensive season, although his worst is still good enough to make him one of baseball’s five best offensive shortstops. His current .300/.348/471 line — deflated by a miserable May and an active 0-for-20 streak — will be the seventh-best in the Blue Jays’ order, after adjusting for park. He’s chasing more pitches outside of the strike zone, which has hurt his strikeout and walk rates, and his power is down. Even his defensive ratings have suffered. It’s the first time we’ve seen Tulo struggle in the absence of a DL stint since his rookie season. Another concern: Tulo has hit worse away from Coors, even after park adjustments. However, those splits can be deceptive. For one thing, he hasn’t known any home-field advantage except Coors Field’s, and his road line would still be better than almost every other shortstop’s overall performance. For another, Rockies hitters seem to have a hangover effect that hampers their hitting as they ascend and descend. People worried that Matt Holliday wouldn’t hit when the Rockies traded him; don’t waste your time worrying about the same scenario now.

There’s Only a Modest Difference Between the Two Players for the Rest of 2015: The projected difference between Reyes and Tulo over the rest of the regular season is a little less than one win, and that’s with Tulo expected to bounce back enough to outperform every other shortstop. Two months just isn’t enough time for a great player to open up a large lead over a decent alternative, which should probably tell us that we pay too much attention to contenders’ deadline additions. Both before and after the trade, FanGraphs’s Playoff Odds indicated that the Jays were more likely to miss the playoffs than to make them.

But Tulo isn’t a rental: He’s signed through 2020, so we won’t have to grade the trade based solely on his impact on the 2015 team. Baseball Prospectus’s long-term projections expect Tulo to be a combined six wins better than Reyes from 2017 to 2018. And by the time the remainder of Tulo’s deal looks as daunting as Reyes’s does today, Toronto will have cleared R.A. Dickey’s, Bautista’s, Mark Buehrle’s, and Encarnacion’s contracts.

Toronto Needed Pitching, Not Another Bat: A lack of pitching was the Jays’ clearest weak point heading into trade season. As one front-office source asked me shortly after the trade, “Do they want to lose 10-8 rather than 10-6?” In theory, the Jays should have been able to upgrade more easily in the rotation, since they would have been starting from a lower baseline than they were at short. The theory seems sound, but the realities of the market may have made other upgrades unpalatable or implausible. Considering Cueto’s and Kazmir’s proximity to free agency and ineligibility for qualifying offers, neither pitcher came cheap. And the only available starter of Tulo-esque value in both the short and long terms is Cole Hamels, who included the Jays on his no-trade list.

There are three takeaways here. The first is that rosters don’t have to be balanced to succeed: A great hitting team can still get better by upgrading its offense and out-bludgeoning its opponents. The second is that swapping Reyes and Tulo improves Toronto’s run prevention, no matter who’s on the mound. At age 30, Tulo probably isn’t as adept in the field as he used to be, but his defensive stats haven’t fallen as far as Reyes’s. And the third is that this deal doesn’t preclude the possibility of the Jays importing an arm this week.

Now, the Pro-Rockies Case

miguel-castro-blue-jays-rockies-tradeJim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Rockies Need Pitching, Too: It was always thus. The Rockies’ rotation has been one of the worst of 2015 (and of the entire expansion era), and the prospects who were at one time expected to help have instead become part of the problem (Eddie Butler, Tyler Matzek) or been slow to arrive (Jon Gray). The Rockies could go one of two ways as they try to address this lasting deficiency: Plaster the holes in the staff with even more pitchers, or try to bring back the Blake Street Bombers, either by hoarding hitting prospects like the Cubs or by going the quicker-but-costlier route and collecting established offensive stars like Toronto.

This trade seems like a vote for the former approach, which hasn’t worked well so far. Hoffman, 22, a 6-foot-4 righty who ranked 33rd on Baseball America’s midseason top prospect list, has looked like the guy in contention for 2014’s top draft slot before undergoing Tommy John surgery from which he only recently returned. He can touch the high 90s, although the curveball he pairs with his fastball doesn’t profile as a great fit for Coors Field. Castro, a 20-year-old hard thrower who was rushed to the majors this spring, throws just as hard but still lacks command and quality secondary stuff. One scout I spoke to pegged him as a future reliever, although other evaluators see him as a future fourth starter. Tinoco, who’s still in Class A, is also tall, 20, and right-handed, with some ability to get grounders, so it seems as though the Rockies have a type.

The Rockies Saved Money: Technically, the Rockies saved $52 million by trading Tulowitzki and Hawkins for Reyes. Jeff Bridich’s roster is now free of payroll commitments beyond 2017, an enviable blank canvas on which the new GM will work. But the Rockies won’t start saving most of that money until 2018 — unless they also get rid of Reyes, which brings us to the teetering domino that might just tie the trade together.

They Still Have Time to Trade Reyes for More Salary Relief and an Even Richer Return: The key to declaring a winner of the Tulo trade is a move that hasn’t yet been made. Bridich still has a few days to redirect his new shortstop before the non-waiver deadline, although in Reyes’s case, the real deadline might not come until August 31, since the 32-year-old is owed enough money to pass through waivers. And that’s the problem: Considering the size of his contract, Reyes doesn’t look like a trade chip. If Bridich did line up an attractive return for Reyes before he traded Tulo — which would cut payroll, further replenish the farm, and clear room for shortstop prospect Trevor Story — the rest of the deal is much easier to accept. If he didn’t, as reports have suggested, then Reyes is a lot of risk to take on.

It’s easy to play matchmaker and recommend that the Rockies trade Reyes to the Mets, where he’d usher out the Wilmer Flores era that his free-agent departure helped usher in. But the Wilpons wouldn’t pay Reyes when the shortstop was worth the money, so they won’t want to pay him now — nor should they, Madoff-related losses aside. To get something good back for Reyes, the Rockies would either have to kick in cash — partially offsetting the value of whatever they received in return — or find an overly generous GM, possibly by flipping A.J. Preller’s desk calendar back to December. And they’ll have to handle that search while also fielding offers for Carlos Gonzalez.

According to the projections, Tulowitzki will be worth $40 million more than he’s due to be paid over the remainder of his contract, while Reyes will be worth $20 million less. If that’s the case, then as Dan Szymborski notes, the Rockies essentially swapped $60 million for Castro, Hoffman, and Tinoco, which isn’t exactly a steal. Then again, the Rockies might have reason to think that the projections are wrong — that this isn’t just an off year for Tulowitzki, or a byproduct of playing for losing teams, but the beginning of a serious spiral. Tulo, whose health is always a concern, is far from a lock to age as gracefully as the projection systems say, especially once he’s locked in a fight to the death between his fragile lower body and the unyielding Rogers Centre turf, which won’t be replaced until 2018 at the earliest.

All told, the arguments against Toronto’s side seem less convincing than the ones in support of the Rockies’ side, and I’m the guy who saw some good in the Oakland end of the Donaldson deal. The most compelling counterpoint to any complaints about the price Toronto paid falls into the “flags fly forever” department: The Blue Jays haven’t made the playoffs in 22 years, the longest absence of any Big Four franchise. That’s longer than Castro has been alive, and longer than Hawkins — who’s old enough that the last minor leaguer a team traded for him at the deadline hasn’t played pro ball for three years — has been in the big leagues. “Touch ’em all, Joe” won’t ever get old, but no team is more in need of some high-def highlights.

Filed Under: MLB, 2015 MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Trades, Colorado Rockies, Toronto Blue Jays, Troy Tulowitzki, Jose Reyes, LaTroy Hawkins, Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro, Jesus Tinoco, Shortstops, Pitchers, MLB Prospects, 2015 MLB Playoffs, MLB Playoffs, Sports Streaks, MLB Stats, MLB Contracts, Money Matters, Baseball, Ben Lindbergh

Ben Lindbergh is a staff writer at Grantland.

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