We knew it was going to happen eventually.
Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki will miss the remainder of the season with a torn hip labrum, dooming his candidacy for National League Most Valuable Player and putting a dour punctuation note on what has been a Rockies season ruined by injury and marred by ugly spats between ownership, their own front office, Colorado baseball fans and Tulowitzki himself.
First, the facts: Tulowitzki's .340/.432/.603 1.075 OPS (174 OPS+) line leads the NL in every respect, even though it had already been passed by in plate appearances (only 375) by Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton, Yasiel Puig and the other top hitters of the National League well before Wednesday's news. In addition, Tulowitzki is either the best everyday defensive shortstop in baseball or the second best, depending on your feelings on Andrelton Simmons of the Atlanta Braves (I prefer Tulowitzki). Should he have stayed healthy, the only position player who could have credibly challenged him for an MVP award based purely on performance was some theoretical version of Mike Trout who played baseball in the NL. While Tulowitzki will still get some votes come the end of the year, he was already on thin ice with the Rockies out of playoff contention; McCutchen, Puig, and Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw now become the de facto frontrunners.
The bigger conversation has nothing to do with a personal award for the 2014 season, of course, or with the fate of the Rockies this season -- or even next. As gets noted in every single one of these articles -- and will continue to be noted in every single one of these articles for the next couple years -- the best shortstop in baseball is still due a whole lot of money for a large number of years: another $114 million for his age-30 through age-35 seasons, then a $4 million buyout on a $15 million team option for his age-36 season in 2021. That's a fair contract for a guy with Tulowitzki's production, if a bit guilty of the free agent contract sin of paying for production on the front end with extra years and dollars on the backend. The problem, though, is that Tulowitzki has to be healthy to deliver that production, and recently that's been a problem for him.
This year will be the 5th season of the last 7 in which Tulowitzki has failed to play over 130 games despite being the Rockies' full-time shortstop. The closest he's come in any of the past three seasons was last year's 126 games, which was preceded by the 47-game 2012. In 2014 he made it to 91 games before his body gave out. Tulowitzki is getting older, and age rarely leads to better health. There have been edge cases like recently-retired Eric Chavez, Oakland's third base marvel whose sudden turn for the injury-prone in 2007 morphed what should have been one of the best contracts of Billy Beane's early tenure into the worst. When Chavez found a second life with New York, he did so only for a little while, and as a part-time player in a league with a DH rule -- and even then, he was a healthier (if not more productive) player than Tulowitzki was before his string of injuries set in. Players don't generally stop getting hurt less as they age.
What does this mean for the Rockies? Well, they probably should have dealt him earlier this summer if there had been a massive market for him, but it's not clear that there was. The sort of prospects that 2014 Troy Tulowitzki should have commanded -- health questions and all -- are the sort of prospects that just don't get put on the table very much these days. The St. Louis Cardinals and Baltimore Orioles were two contending teams that definitely had the pieces to pick him up, but there's no sign that there was any will to spend that prospect capital in either organization. The New York Mets had some sort of passing interest in Tulowitzki as a long-term option -- and let's be honest, any time you're dealing for a contract with six-plus years left on it, it shouldn't really matter too much whether you're a competing team this year -- but that went nowhere either.
That's what remains frustrating about an elite player with serious injury concerns: The problem isn't that his production will fall off over the course of his contract, it's that it'll suddenly start and stop and start again, like a car with a bad fuel injector. And while projection systems for on-field performance remain questionable for pinpoint accuracy, we've got far more data to go on for that than we do for projecting injuries. The best thing the Rockies can do, assuming Tulowitzki is amenable, is hold onto him and try again next year, with the hopes that 2015 will be one of the seasons in which he can manage at least 120+ games.
But we've reached the point where Colorado can no longer plan on him being healthy. The question next year, just like the question this year, wasn't if Troy Tulowitzki was going to get injured again; it's when.