DUNEDIN, Fla. – It wasn’t until late January, nearly six months after he stepped on C.J. Cron’s foot, that Troy Tulowitzki’s right ankle started feeling noticeably better.
Now Tulowitzki’s progressing again, but with six weeks remaining before opening day, he hasn’t started running at full speed. Playing on opening day remains his goal, but he’s wary of pushing too hard or making any guarantees.
“I’m not going to put any timetables on it,” the Toronto Blue Jays shortstop said. “Obviously that’s the goal, but there’s still so many days in front of us here in spring training. I definitely want to be out there, but I’m not going to say ‘yeah, for sure.'”
Initially, Tulowitzki’s ankle didn’t progress the way he hoped. He put in rehab work, ‘a lot of hours each and every day,’ without regaining mobility as quickly as he expected. To be fair, this was no ordinary ankle sprain; he tore the ligaments in his right ankle and also suffered a compression fracture.
Because his ankle wasn’t moving as well as usual, a chronic bone spur acted up and started bothering him. Gradually, though, the mobility has returned and the ankle has started feeling better.
“I honestly don’t feel bad,” Tulowitzki said. “I just don’t want to do anything to put me back.”
On Monday, the first day of full-squad workouts, the 33-year-old took ground balls with third base coach Luis Rivera. The grounders weren’t off a bat, and they weren’t designed to test his range too much, but Tulowitzki felt good after working out in cleats for the first time this spring.
Given the demands of Tulowitzki’s position, more hurdles await him. He has to be able to run, for starters, and to this point he’s been limited to shuffling and jogging. In the next week or two, he expects to expand his range. Plus, he wants to be able to comfortably squat to get into fielding position — a must for a tall shortstop and traditionally a strength of Tulowitzki’s.
At his best, Tulowitzki quietly stabilizes the Blue Jays’ infield defence. Josh Donaldson gained a new appreciation for his teammate when he filled in at shortstop last year.
“I still pick his brain about defensive things,” Donaldson said. “He’s one of the best shortstops, probably of all time, defensively and offensively. He’s had an awesome career. He makes difficult plays look rather routine. I know I sometimes lose appreciation just because you see him do it all of the time.”
“He’s very, very good out there,” manager John Gibbons added. “As steady as anybody. It’s huge to have a shortstop that can do that, regardless of how they hit.”
The Blue Jays aren’t exactly sure when Tulowitzki will make his spring debut, but definitely he won’t be appearing in the first couple of games. The club will monitor his progress day by day to assess his readiness.
“We don’t think it’ll be too, too long,” Gibbons said, “but we’ve just got to make sure he’s right. He’s one of our main guys.”
Tulowitzki’s ankle doesn’t bother him while hitting, and he’s not worried about getting enough spring at bats. If necessary he could play on the minor-league side to re-familiarize himself with live pitching. But after a season in which he hit just .249/.300/.378 with seven home runs in 66 games, he’s expecting more from himself at the plate.
“No doubt,” he said. “I haven’t been the player I wanted to be since I was here. I’ve had some hot stretches. I’ve had some times where I’ve felt like myself, but overall I just haven’t got it going.”
Last year’s Blue Jays faltered in part because they had insufficient depth available when starters like Tulowitzki and Devon Travis suffered injuries. Over the winter, the front office added bench depth with the likes of Yangervis Solarte and Aledmys Diaz. On paper, the roster’s deeper than it was this time last year.
“We like our chances,” Tulowitzki said. “We like our guys in that clubhouse. It’s baseball, man. All you’ve got to do is get hot.”
A healthy Tulowitzki would go a long way toward helping the Blue Jays achieve their goals. Their off-season additions insure them against continued injuries, a necessary precaution, but Tulowitzki’s just a year removed from a season in which he hit 24 homers with a .761 OPS. That kind of production’s hard to find from a shortstop.
“Bottom line is I like playing this game so if I can be out there I definitely will be out there,” he said.