TORONTO — When Troy Tulowitzki pictures the 2019 edition of the Toronto Blue Jays, he sees a contending team, one that could surprise people thanks to its young talent.
Well, its mostly-young talent. Tulowitzki doesn’t see 28-year-old Aledmys Diaz, 24-year-old Lourdes Gurriel Jr. or 20-year-old Bo Bichette starting at shortstop for next year’s Blue Jays. Nothing against those guys — Tulowitzki likes what he sees from each of them.
It’s just that he sees himself at short.
Whether the Blue Jays’ decision makers see things similarly next spring will depend, as ever, on Tulowitzki’s health. Now 33, Tulowitzki will miss the entire 2018 season. Early in the year he underwent surgery to remove bone spurs on both heels, and he didn’t improve as quickly as he had hoped.
But after an off-season focused on recovery, he anticipates arriving at spring training at full strength, maybe with better mobility than before.
And he anticipates playing shortstop, the only MLB position he has ever played, even if it means winning the job over his younger teammates.
“If there’s someone that’s better than me, I’ll be the first one to say it,” Tulowitzki said in the dugout at Rogers Centre Sunday. “I look around the big leagues and try to be the best shortstop in the game. There’s been plenty of years I’ve been the best shortstop in the game. There’s been years I’ve been the worst shortstop in the game and if we had anybody that was worth anything they should have taken my job. That’s the nature of the business.”
For years, Tulowitzki has insisted that he’s a shortstop and only a shortstop. When asked about a potential position change Sunday, he made it clear that he’s not interested.
“I just said I’m a shortstop,” he said. “If someone’s better than me, I’ll pack my bags and go home. I do think I bring a lot more out there than what you guys see and that’s part of baseball. There’s things behind the scenes that go on. There’s things I try to help teammates with. I think I do bring a veteran leadership, so those things shouldn’t go unnoticed.”
To manager John Gibbons, those intangibles were apparent as soon as the Blue Jays acquired Tulowitzki ahead of the 2015 trade deadline. But after a mostly-healthy 2016 season, Tulowitzki has missed extended time, first with a ligament tear and compression fracture in his right ankle, then with bone spurs in both heels.
“I miss having him around,” Gibbons said Saturday. “He really shored us up in ’15 with his defence alone. I’ve got nothing but good things (to say about) him.”
Still, it’s not entirely clear how Tulowitzki fits into the Blue Jays’ plans going forward. He’s making significant money, with a contract that will pay him $20 million in 2019 and $14 million in 2020. Beyond that, the deal includes a $15-million club option for 2021 or a $4-million buyout.
At this point, that commitment’s a sunk cost. The Blue Jays showed last year that they’re no longer depending on Tulowitzki when they acquired Diaz and Yangervis Solarte to provide middle infield depth. Since then, Gurriel Jr. has emerged as a promising shortstop, too. After another season lost to injury, it’s hard to see how the front office could view Tulowitzki as a sure thing entering 2019.
If that means Tulowitzki has to compete for a job at shortstop, he’ll welcome the challenge.
“I would love for it to be a competition,” he said. “Why? Because that makes our team better. I’ve always said that since day one I stepped into the big leagues. I remember being a rookie and people thought I had no chance to make the team out of spring training. I welcome competition. It really doesn’t matter to me. You don’t get to this point without competing. I don’t make that decision. That’s why we have coaches, that’s why we have managers.”
Tulowitzki spent much of the summer rehabbing at the Blue Jays’ Dunedin, Fla., facility in the hopes that a 2018 comeback was possible. He ran the bases to simulate game conditions and test his heels. Sometimes he’d walk off a backfield and feel like he was a week away from playing in games. Other times the pain would linger.
Emotionally, it was a “roller coaster” for Tulowitzki. Physically, there simply wasn’t enough progress.
“Right now, I don’t trust the fact that I can go out there for 60 straight games and be able to answer the bell every single time,” he said. “If I can’t go out there on those backfields and practice for three or four days in a row, then it wouldn’t be very smart for me to come up here and have to have a day off every couple days. When I come back, I want to play every single day.”
Tulowitzki also made it clear that he expects to win, regardless of the club’s current struggles and the reality that the Yankees and Red Sox project as strong teams in 2019. In his view, outside expectations only mean so much.
“I don’t believe in rebuilds, honestly,” he said. “I’ve been with a lot of really good teams, I’ve been with teams that weren’t so good. You look around the league, there’s some good examples of some teams that are pretty young that win games.”
Could the 2019 Blue Jays be one of those teams, as the likes of Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. join the major-league roster? Tulowitzki says he’s excited for what’s ahead.
“You can win with young players,” he said. “You can win games with honestly anybody on the field, it really doesn’t matter.”
The front office hasn’t been nearly as bullish in public statements about 2019, preferring generalities to this kind of optimism. But, then again, that might not be the only way they view things differently from Tulowitzki. After all, last winter’s focus on middle infield depth suggests their confidence in him as an everyday player has diminished.
As for Tulowitzki, he sounds as certain as ever that he’ll earn those everyday at-bats at shortstop. If you ask him, the combination of veteran instincts and improved health could allow him to improve defensively.
“I’m of the Cal Ripken mould,” he said. “Positioning is very important. My experience out there proves that you don’t have to be the quickest guy. It’s all about reads, it’s about baseball smarts, it’s about angles. There’s a lot more that goes into playing shortstop than people think. I believe in my ability. I believe in the homework that I do. Without a doubt.
“Guess what?” he added. “My heels aren’t going to be bothering me either, and my heels have been bothering me the last few years. I might even be better-suited for the position as I get older.”