LAS VEGAS – Consider the $38-million price tag on the release of Troy Tulowitzki the final bill for punting Jose Reyes midway through the 2015 season, when the need to pay out a shortstop who no longer fit the roster was deferred for a few years.
The Toronto Blue Jays decided they had to make a change that summer and they could have taken the financial hit then, run with Ryan Goins at shortstop and diverted some prospect capital elsewhere. Instead, then-GM Alex Anthopoulos made one his boldest and most polarizing plays, using Reyes to get the longtime Colorado Rockies star, at the time on a Hall-of-Fame track.
Essentially, the math worked like this: The money was essentially even in ’15, but the Blue Jays took on the $98 million owed to Tulowitzki beyond that, rather than eating the $48 million due to Reyes for 2016 and ‘17 plus a buyout on his 2018 club option. So, in essence, they paid $50 million to get Tulowitzki and reliever LaTroy Hawkins for Reyes and prospects Jeff Hoffman, Jesus Tinoco and Miguel Castro.
It was a Vegas-worthy, all-chips-on-the-table bet.
In the short-term, the gamble paid off. Tulowitzki helped the Blue Jays win the AL East in 2015, claim the wild card in ’16 and make consecutive trips to the American League Championship Series. His key moments with the Blue Jays include the RBI single in the top of the eighth inning that gave the Blue Jays a 2-1 win over Boston on the final day of the 2016 season to secure a wild-card berth, along with three homers and 16 RBIs in 20 post-season games.
The joy over his acquisition along with the Tu-Lo chants during his Blue Jays debut July 29, 2015, when he homered and doubled twice in an 8-2 thumping of the Philadelphia Phillies, was electric.
Maybe the Blue Jays would have succeeded in 2015 and ’16 without him, maybe not. But there are enough people around the team who believe Tulowitzki’s presence, determination and steadiness in the field were pivotally transformative.
Long-term, the payoff from the deal is more fleeting, like a gambler who gets up early but eventually gives all his winnings back to the house. Perhaps fittingly, the Blue Jays went bust at their winter meetings suite at the Mandalay Bay Casino and Resort, weeks of discussions with Tulowitzki and his agent Paul Cohen culminating in his release, announced Tuesday in a three-paragraph news release issued by the club at 3 p.m. ET.
Now, how different do things look if Tulowitzki doesn’t tear up his ankle stepping on C.J. Cron’s heel at first base while trying to beat out an infield single on July 28, 2017? Or if he didn’t subsequently need surgery for bone spurs on both his heels in April? Given his $20 million salary, his absence was debilitating for a club trying to extend a closing competitive window.
Last week general manager Ross Atkins, in remarkably candid comments, made a parting seem imminent when he said, “I think it’s unlikely that he plays an above-average shortstop for us for 140 games.”
If the Blue Jays didn’t think he could be an elite performer, then he really had no place on a rebuilding roster, as a part-time role surrounded by taking-their-lumps kids would surely have left him frustrated. As recently as August, Tulowitzki vowed to return as an everyday player, memorably saying, “if someone’s better than me, I’ll pack my bags and go home.”
Beyond that, there’s little sense taking reps away from Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Richard Urena and the youngsters on their way like Bo Bichette and Kevin Smith.
If Tulowitzki still had four years of control remaining, the thinking is probably different. But with only two guaranteed seasons left – at $20 million in 2019, $14 million in 2020, plus a $4 million buyout on a 2021 club option – both likely to be development years for the Blue Jays, it’s easy to understand why Atkins described the release as a move “in the best interests” of both sides.
“For us, it’s roster flexibility,” he explained inside the Blue Jays suite at the winter meetings, “and for both it’s the ability to be more proactive and responsive to the potential of not having that flexibility, and Troy being on our roster and potentially not playing on a regular basis. I don’t want to characterize or misrepresent Troy, but having the ability to be proactive was seemingly powerful for them.”
Tulowitzki wasn’t blinsided by the move, as his agent outlined to him a series of possible outcomes at the beginning of the off-season. The Blue Jays drew praise for keeping the 34-year-old updated throughout their discussions and rather than bringing Tulowitzki into camp in spring training and making a decision to release him then, cutting him now gives him a better chance to find an opportunity that works for him.
As Atkins put it: “It’s a much better time for a free agent now than it would be if you’re a free agent in April or May.”
Given the uncertainty about what Tulowitzki might contribute next season, his release has little immediate impact on the roster. Gurriel isn’t “being pencilled in as our shortstop of the future, he’s got to earn that,” said Atkins, and even with Urena and prospects like Bichette and Smith in house, “looking to complement that group will be important to us.”
Asked if he specifically wanted to add a more veteran shortstop type of piece, Atkins replied, “we’ll see what happens on the trade front, we’ll see what happens with the rest of the off-season, but that could potentially be a good fit.”
The Blue Jays now hope one of their kids become what Tulowitzki provided in 2015 and ’16, with Atkins remembering in the latter season, “the steady nature of his defence, the remarkable nature of his throwing, the intensity of his at-bats, every one of them, and always feeling like there was a chance for the ball to go out of the ballpark.”
“The influence on his teammates and on people in the clubhouse, not just players but coaches, staff was always very positive,” he added, “and it was one of professionalism and commitment to winning. He was awesome. I have very fond memories of that.”
That player is gone, the Blue Jays convinced never to return. They could have paid out Reyes in 2015, and who knows how things would have played out subsequently. Instead they pay out Tulowitzki now, with all the benefit of a wild ride with two ALCS appearances in between.