The Colorado Rockies shouldn't trade Troy Tulowitzki, but after the week they've had it wouldn't be surprising if he wanted out.
The Rockies are teetering at the bottom of the National League West, 11 games out of first place in a division dominated by the team with the biggest payroll and best starting rotation in baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and a team that's won two of the last five World Series, the San Francisco Giants. Despite a hot start to the year, they languish in fourth in a three-way race with the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres to avoid finishing at the bottom of the division and the entire NL. They posted an abysmal 8-20 record in June -- reflecting the dire straits of the team's pitching staff after starter Jordan Lyles' breakout season was interrupted by a trip to the disabled list from which he has not yet returned. They were already missing Tyler Chatwood and Brett Anderson, then lost starters Christian Bergman, Eddie Butler, Nick Masset and finally Jhoulys Chacin to injury. The team was reduced to trading for Jair Jurrjens from the Cincinnati Reds, giving him a start, having him leave that start and go to the hospital due to breathing problems, and then sending him down to Triple-A Colorado Springs to get Carlos Gonzalez back on the roster. Anderson returns on Sunday against the Twins, but its likely too little, too late for the Rockies to even challenge for the NL wild card.
So it's unsurprising that as June stretched on, the Rockies' franchise shortstop and presumptive frontrunner for the NL Most Valuable Player Award, Troy Tulowitzki, had things like this to say:
"In Todd Helton, there's someone who's easy to look at his career here and how it played out. I have the utmost respect for Todd, but at the same time, I don't want to be the next in line as somebody who was here for a long time and didn't have a chance to win every single year," said Tulowitzki, reviewing the 17 years Helton spent as the face of a franchise that never won a division title. "He played in a couple postseason games and went to one World Series. But that's not me. I want to be somewhere where there's a chance to be in the playoffs every single year."
That is, unmistakably, the statement of a superstar who is media-savvy enough not to demand a trade publically, given that he could conceivably still be on his current club for the next six years, but who is clearly displeased with how the team around him has been constructed. There's pretty much no clearer way to communicate that to Rockies fans and ownership, actually, than saying "I don't want to be Todd Helton."
Perhaps unfortunately for Tulowitzki, though, there's almost no good baseball reason to trade one of the top five players in baseball at his peak -- and Tulowitzki, a generational talent at age 29, is very much at his peak. The Rockies have certainly been a bad team this year, but moving a player of Tulo's quality opens up another gaping hole on the roster. It essentially signals that the front office is burning the team, selling everything off for parts, and starting the contention cycle over.
That's not to say that the situation with Tulowitzki is perfect; his contract isn't team-friendly -- he'll be making $20 million a season through 2019, with a $14 million salary in 2020 and a team option for $15 million with a $4 million buyout in 2021 -- but it's far from an albatross like Ryan Howard's or Alex Rodriguez's have become (pending further Yankees action) or like CC Sabathia's seems to be portending. Between Tulowitzki and fellow Rockies cornerstone Gonzalez, Tulowitzki has clearly the superior contract of the two -- Tulo's been roughly a six-win player by WAR every year he's been a regular in the league, with the only two exceptions being seasons shortened by injury. Health, essentially, is the major concern for Tulowitzki, and while it's a concern for the Rockies too, it would also be a concern for the team that's trading for him.
The real problem with trading Tulowitzki isn't his health or that other teams won't want to absorb his contract. The real problem is that it's nearly impossible to get a package back for a player of Tulowitzki's caliber that's as valuable as having the player himself. Take one of the more plausible proposed trades, for example -- this one with the Orioles:
SP Dylan Bundy, SP Kevin Gausman, IF Jonathan Schoop, 1B Christian Walker for SS Troy Tulowitzki and RP Adam Ottovino.
Putting aside that the deal has nearly zero chance of clearing Baltimore owner Peter Angelos' desk -- it adds a massive financial commitment for a team whose ownership is constantly making noise about how much money they're spending on payroll, without any contracts going the other way -- it's a fantastic trade for Baltimore. While Bundy and Gausman have reasons to bet against their success -- Bundy has already had one Tommy John surgery and Gausman's results at the major league level have been tepid at best, even if he is statistically the best Orioles' starter this season -- they're valuable prospects with high upside. Schoop and Walker are add-on pieces. Neither has a great chance of being much at the MLB level long-term, but either could explode. Walker, in particular, is having a fantastic year in the minors. The move guts Baltimore's farm (as it should), leaving pitcher Hunter Harvey as the only remaining player of note, unless you're a big Eduardo Rodriguez fan. It does net one of the best players in the game. Moving J.J. Hardy to second and having Manny Machado at third would give the Orioles the best infield in baseball, full stop, offensive and defensive.
That's probably the best package on the market for Tulowitzki, given the Rockies' needs. No one else has two top-flight pitching prospects currently healthy, nearing MLB readiness and with the upside that Gausman and Bundy have, even given their various dings. If Colorado allows Bundy to throw his cutter regularly against live batters and helps Gausman fix his command issues, they might come close to recouping the actual value of Tulowitzki. But it's a pie-in-the-sky deal given the realities of Baltimore's ownership and the way prospects are currently valued in the industry, and either or both of Bundy and Gausman could lose their sheen by this time next year.
Tulowitzki, on the other hand, is a known quantity and likely to continue to be for the next three to four seasons, and that known quantity is "on track for the Hall of Fame." He will continue to have injury issues, certainly, but he's the sort of player whose presence or absence changes the entire complexion of the season; while the Rockies haven't accomplished much with him, imagine what they'd be without him.
Of course, Tulowitzki himself is the wild card; so far his comments in the media have been fairly tame, but with another losing season looming and the national embarrassment that has been Rockies' owner Dick Monfort taking to his team's comment box to tell fans to stop coming to games and to muse that perhaps he should move the Rockies out of Denver, it wouldn't be surprising if the best player in the league upped the pressure on the Rockies to make substantial changes to their roster -- changes either involving acquiring a credible pitching staff, somehow, or failing that, getting rid of him.
Colorado shouldn't want any part of sending Troy Tulowitzki out of town, but if he has decided that it's time to go, it had better start looking around.