Jonah Keri’s Blue Jays Mail Bag: Is Tulowitzki more liability than asset?

Welcome back to Sportsnet’s Blue Jays Mailbag!

Throughout the season, we’ll ask you for burning questions about the home nine. We’ll then pick a few of our favourite submissions for answers. Got a question for a future Bag?

Submit your questions to @Sportsnet on Twitter and Facebook using hashtag #JaysMailbag and we’ll answer as many of your queries as possible!

Now onto this week’s questions …

ANSWER: To properly answer this question, we need to establish some parameters. First, Tulowitzki just had his worst season since his first big-league cup of coffee way back in 2006. The combination of his meager .249/.300/.378 batting line, his slipping defence, and a serious ankle injury that cut his season short at the 66-game mark made him a replacement-level player. Between injuries and wildly uncharacteristic outcomes both at the plate and in the field (he saved one more run than the average shortstop this year per Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved, after being +10 in 2016), this was an absolute worst-case scenario season for Tulo. When extremely unlikely outcomes occur either on the upside or the downside, the smart money is always on a bounce back toward the mean.

As for leaning on cherry-picked won-lost records in small samples of games, fixating on Tulo’s absence ignores dozens of other factors that can influence the outcome of games. Much of Josh Donaldson’s time on the disabled list coincided with Tulo’s. A number of games in which Tulo played coincided with horrific performances by his teammates in the lineup, rotation, and bullpen. And so on.

Bottom line: The Blue Jays don’t have anyone in the majors, or on the cusp of the majors, who’s ready to step in and be an upgrade over even the worst version of Tulowitzki. Add in the strong likelihood that Tulo sees some progression after such an unlucky and disastrous season, as well as his massive contract, and he’ll very likely be Toronto’s starting shortstop on Opening Day 2018. This time, likely with significantly better results.

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ANSWER: At first glance, if anyone in the organization could possibly even begin to resemble a potential Tulowitzki heir apparent, it would seem to be Gurriel. The Jays signed the younger brother of Astros infielder Yuli Gurriel to a seven-year, $22-million deal in October, then assigned him to Single-A Dunedin to start the season. Gurriel put in 18 games at that level before rising to Double-A New Hampshire.

One problem: He hasn’t hit a lick at either level, batting a brutal .197/.217/.258 at Dunedin, and .245/.276/.378 in 27 games at New Hampshire. Though he has seen most of his action at shortstop this season, he profiles more as a super utility man who can play some second, third, and outfield. That’s strike one against his chances of eventually replacing Tulo. Strike two is a lack of power and plate discipline. He’s managed just three home runs and seven walks in those 45 combined games.

Though teams often make mistakes when it comes to talent evaluation, and arguably do so even more often with Cuban players, the Jays landing Gurriel from his age-23 through age-29 seasons for just over $3 million a year speaks volumes. He could eventually crack the big club, but it’s hard to imagine him becoming an impact player.

ANSWER: Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. are so thoroughly raking at Dunedin, it’s possible we see both start next season at Double A. Bichette just past his 20th birthday. Guerrero just past his 19th.

Even if the two hit-happy infielders progress at that fast a pace, though, it’s tough to see any potential positional conflict with Josh Donaldson. The 2015 MVP can test the free-agent market after the 2018 season. Given how few marquee players make it to free agency in this era of locking players up through their prime (even small-market, small-revenue clubs have done this with stars like Joey Votto and Evan Longoria), Donaldson has too much financial incentive not to see what’s out there. Given that he might sign a free-agent mega contract on or very near his 33rd birthday, the prudent duo of Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins would thus seem unlikely to want to lavish five or more years and a boatload of money on Donaldson’s future.

Which means if you ever want to see JD, Bo, and Vlad Jr. play together, it may have to happen in the 2021 All-Star Game.

ANSWER: That’s certainly what management is hoping to see. Donaldson’s final year under team control offers a reasonable excuse to give it one more go before a rebuild — or at least a retooling process — can begin in earnest.

And yes, there could be a path to the playoffs for the Jays next year. We’ve seen enough good-but-not-great teams eke into the post-season and then make a deep run to make World Series contention at least a possibility. A lot of things will have to go right, though. Aaron Sanchez will need to rebound from a lost season, show up blister-free, and fire something approaching 200 quality innings to give the Jays a legitimate top three in the rotation with Marcus Stroman and J.A. Happ. Tulowitzki will need to hit, and Devon Travis will need to do the same. Both will need to be healthy. Building a quality bench, including a serviceable backup catcher, would help a lot. So too would squeezing any kind of offence out of the outfield, not to mention better defence from the corners. With no impact players in the high minors ready to make the leap, those kinds of improvements will need to come via the trade market, plus some successful free-agent bargain hunting. A lot of ifs there, but coming off a season in which the second wild-card team might be a merely decent, 86-win club, you can always dream on it.

Here’s why they try to beat the odds and make it happen: People care about the Jays again. They’re on track to lead the American League for the second straight season in attendance, averaging more than 40,000 a game despite the team’s lacklustre performance. TV ratings (and thus advertising rates) remain robust, even if they’re off a little from 2015 and 2016 peak levels. More broadly, the Jays are still a major part of the city’s sports scene, in a way that was largely absent during their 22-year gap between playoff appearances. Tearing everything down now could very well pay off in four or five years’ time. But if the Jays can somehow find a soft landing between middle-of-the-pack performance and a return to excitement and contention — the way the Yankees did after their 95-win campaign in 2012 — that would be the ideal (albeit tough-to-reach) scenario.

Ben Nicholson-Smith and Arden Zwelling take fans inside the Blue Jays and around MLB with news, analysis and interviews.

ANSWER: I adore this question. It combines my love of Internet sleuthing with my obsession with random stats from 1993.

For those who don’t remember, Olerud was batting .400 as late as Aug. 2 during the ’93 season, before settling for a mere (still outstanding) .363 batting average by year’s end. One simple, back-of-the-napkin way to address whether or not pitchers dodged him to prevent the first .400 campaign in more than half a century, then, is to use Aug. 2 as a line of demarcation. What did his numbers look like from Opening Day to Aug. 2, then from Aug. 3 to season’s end?

Opening Day-to-Aug. 2 (105 games): .400/.500/.685, .401 batting average on balls in play, 16.7% walk rate, 6% intentional walk rate

Aug. 3-to-end of season (53 games): .290/.419/.430, .323 batting average on balls in play, 17% walk rate, 2.6% intentional walk rate

I’m just not seeing it. Pitchers walked Olerud about as often before and after the drop below .400, though much less frequently afterwards. We don’t have PitchF/X data going back that far to see if pitchers changed their repertoire or pitch locations against Olerud, of course. But we do know that far, far fewer balls that he hit in play landed for hits in the final third of the season, as compared to the first two-thirds of the season. This reads as simple regression rising up and biting Olerud, turning him from a demigod through Aug. 2 into merely an excellent hitter thereafter. Whichever hitter wants to conjure memories of Ted Williams in 1941 will need not only season-long excellence but also enough good fortune to last 162 games, if he hopes to enter one of baseball’s most exclusive clubs.