TORONTO – To fully appreciate the impact of the Troy Tulowitzki trade, some context on the 2015 Blue Jays is needed.
In Jose Reyes, the Blue Jays already had a star shortstop who was beloved by his teammates. Thanks to Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, they had baseball’s best offence by a wide margin. What they did not have, and what they clearly needed to restore any hope of ending their 22-year playoff drought, was decent starting pitching.
So when the Blue Jays acquired Tulowitzki early in the morning of July 28, 2015, the baseball world was largely stunned. Executives around the game held Tulowitzki in high regard but had still expected Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos to prioritize pitching, not shortstop. And within the Blue Jays clubhouse, players were less than enthusiastic.
That afternoon, after the trade had been agreed upon but before Tulowitzki had arrived in Toronto, Encarnacion was asked if the move improved the Blue Jays’ roster. He declined to say. Bautista, who had not reached the playoffs in any of his first 11 big-league seasons, didn’t sound completely sold either.
“Maybe not necessarily what we need, but it is an upgrade, if you want to look at it that way,” he said.
“Everybody’s opinion is going to vary,” he added.
Even Tulowitzki had mixed feelings. A lifelong Rockie to that point in his career, he had expected to hear from club leadership if trade talks intensified.
“I felt like I got blindsided a bit,” Tulowitzki told The Denver Post. “It definitely caught me by surprise. I was shocked, and it caught me off guard. I think maybe I was a little naïve.”
All of which to say, the trade was many things at once. Exciting though it was for the fan base, many players were disappointed to lose Reyes. Anthopoulos may have been eyeing Tulowitzki for months, but the shortstop himself was caught off-guard by the deal. And, as anyone could see when Felix Doubront struggled against the woeful Phillies that evening, the Blue Jays’ rotation was still a huge problem.
Plus, the deal came with risks. Tulowitzki had missed plenty of time due to injuries over the years and he had $98 million remaining on his contract (Reyes’ deal had $55 million at the time). Acquiring Tulowitzki and reliever LaTroy Hawkins also cost the Blue Jays three pitching prospects: Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro and Jesus Tinoco.
Even then, the appeal of Tulowitzki was easy to see. He was hitting .300/.348/.471 at the time for an .818 OPS that led all MLB shortstops. His defence would be an upgrade over Reyes, whose inconsistent throwing arm had contributed to his 13 errors. All told, no shortstop had generated more wins above replacement than Tulowitzki over the previous three seasons.
“We’re getting the best shortstop in baseball,” Anthopoulos said.
Added Josh Donaldson: “I’m not trying to shortchange anything that Jose Reyes has done here in his career. He’s done a great job and been a vital part of this organization. At the same time you look at a guy like Troy Tulowitzki, who’s one of the elite shortstops in the game.”
As unexpected as the move was, the appeal of Tulowitzki’s bat was easy to see. A five-time all-star, he would lengthen the Blue Jays’ already potent lineup. And even if it was a little unconventional to add hitting, rather than pitching, to the team that already led MLB in offence, a run scored is as good as a run saved.
Regardless, the first game after the trade resulted in a loss, one that dropped the Blue Jays below .500 at 50-51. The excitement of the trade had given way to reality. Without more pitching, this team would be in trouble. In the three days leading up to the trade deadline, Anthopoulos had more work ahead.
Within the Blue Jays clubhouse that evening, players were pondering the same question as fans: would they really be a better team with Tulowitzki?
“We’ll see,” said Donaldson, and before long we did.