Do the Nationals have room for Troy Tulowitzki?

The Troy Tulowitzki drama continues in Colorado. While it’s far from certain he’ll be traded, many objective observers believe one is the best interests of both parties. The Rockies are bad and need to rebuild, while Tulo is expensive. More importantly, at age 30, he’ll be past his prime when the Rockies are ready to compete again.

This begs the question: does he fit on the Nationals?

Tulo’s biggest question has always been his health, but operating under the assumption he’s healthy, he’s an immediate upgrade in the Nationals lineup (he’d be an upgrade in anyone’s lineup). In 91 games last season, he had a slash line .340/.432/.603. At the premium position of shortstop, he put up a WAR of 5.3 (Fangraphs) in just over half a season. In 2013, in 126 games, he slashed .312/.391/.540, good for a Fangraphs WAR of 5.3.

Ok, that’s the easy part. A healthy Tulo would upgrade anyone’s lineup, Nats included. Now for hard parts: money, contracts, age, the cost of acquiring him, and the side effects of his presence on the Nats lineup.

Contracts and Money. Tulo is entering the back end of his 10-year contract extension signed in 2010. Ordinarily, taking on the back end of a contract extension is a big mistake because most teams gain value on the front end of a contract when a player is younger and more productive. However, free agent contract costs have soared since Tulowitzki signed his $157 million deal in 2010. Teams routinely hand out nine-figure deals to lesser players like Shin Soo-Choo and Jacoby Ellsbury. Tulo’s deal, “crazy” at the time, looks a lot more modest in 2015.

Tulo is scheduled to make $20 million for four seasons from 2016-19. In 2020, he’ll make $14 with a club option of $15 for 2021 ($4 million buyout). That’s $98 million guaranteed for a minimum of 5 seasons. By comparison, Ian Desmond turned down an offer of about $90 million over 5 years. You’d have to assume if the Nats had $90 million for Desi, they’d have $98 million for Tulo, who’s a superior player when healthy. Of course, those final two words “when healthy” are more than a footnote, as Desmond’s durability is a large part of his value. As for Tulo, middle infielders generally don’t become injured less often as they age. We’ll discuss that more below.

Age. Tulo is 30. The number of elite shortstops above the age of 30 is a small list. As a shortstop’s range begins to narrow, it can have a cascading effect on his defense, where Tulo delivers great value. Still, Tulo is an elite athlete and he’s 30, not 35. His defensive decline wouldn’t likely become large enough until the final few years of his contract, where he can be shifted to 3B or 2B (and probably continue to provide plus defense). The Nationals were prepared to pay Desmond to play SS until age 35. It’s hard to believe the Nats wouldn’t pay Tulo to play SS until 36. Despite the age factor, the primary risk remains injury.

The cost of acquiring him. Once paid to be the face of their franchise, the Rockies wouldn’t part with Tulo unless they received a significant future investment in prospects. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Rockies offer to eat a significant portion of Tulo’s remaining money to net a greater return in prospects. Lucas Giolito is probably the first player the Rockies ask for, and he’s likely the only player Rizzo deems untradeable (that alone might kill the deal). Trea Turner would almost certainly be a part of the trade, giving the Rockies the future shortstop the Nats would no longer need. A.J. Cole and Joe Ross are top 100 pitching prospects likely to be included.

This is the point where it’s no longer productive to continue listing Nats prospects that might be included a trade since we have no idea who the Rockies value. The better question is the larger one: would Rizzo flip his prized prospects for a veteran like Tulowitzki? My answer is a qualified yes. Rizzo’s track record shows he’s not afraid to flip prospects for veteran able to be controlled long term (like Gio Gonzalez). When Rizzo trades for prospects, he’s normally giving up on a player with only one more year of team control (like Tyler Clippard). In this case, Rizzo would be trading long term assets (prospects) for an elite long term asset (Tulo—signed through 2020). I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility.

Impact on the Nats: Obviously, Tulo’s bat would instantly upgrade the Nats lineup, but his presence alone would have other consequences. Assuming Desmond isn’t part of the trade (or traded elsewhere in a separate deal), either Desmond or Tulo would be moved off SS until the end of the season. The most logical candidate for the move is Desmond, since Tulo is here long term, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to move him and then move him back next season. If so, Desmond will be moved to a position he hasn’t played in a very long time—2B, 3B or OF. Desmond is capable of this, of course, but awkward defensive transitions aren’t ideal in a pennant race. More importantly, Desmond’s offensive value is as a shortstop. His WAR is so high at SS because so few of them hit 20 HRs. If you move Desmond away from a light-hitting position, he looks a lot more like an average player. Moving Desmond away from SS cuts into the value you’re gaining from acquiring Tulo.

As for the rest of the lineup, things would fall into place, as the remaining Nats infielders have versatility. Rendon and Escobar can both play 2B and 3B. A fully healthy lineup does have too many starting quality infielders (Escobar, Tulo, Rendon, and Desmond for 3 spots), but I just consider that to be insurance (you can even move Rendon to 1B if Zim gets hurt). This is only a temporary problem anyway since Desmond is leaving via free agency next season. In any event, if your problem is “too many good infielders” you should probably stop taking the test and turn it in—it’s ready for grading.

Conclusion: trading for Tulo is aggressive, and I love it. Rizzo isn’t afraid to go bold and grab an elite player most observers don’t even believe they need (like Max Scherzer). The equities break in the Nats favor on this one. Yes, Tulo is already 30, but he’s still in his prime and actually fits the Nats contention “window.” From 2016-18, the Nats have a peak Tulo and Ryan Zimmerman (still only 30), and Max Scherzer, while Bryce Harper and Antony Rendon are just entering their primes. Mike Rizzo often speaks of 1-year, 3-year, and 5-year plans. Acquiring Tulo locks down the Nats 3-year plan and makes them World Series contenders for the entirety of it.

The unknown variables are the cost in prospects and, of course, injury. We can trust Rizzo to work his voodoo magic on the former, but the latter is impossible to predict. Tulo’s injury risk is truly terrifying. He hasn’t played a full season since 2011. But here’s the crazy thing: half a season of Tulo is better than a full season of almost anyone else. He put up a 5.3 over 91 games last year! Assuming the Nats have a capable replacement (they do), Tulo’s absence isn’t a lineup killer, and a full season of the guy, folks, is an MVP season. You can’t run a baseball team without taking risks. This might be a risk worth taking.

UPDATE: I just want to note (based on Twitter feedback) that it’s highly unlikely the Nats trade Desmond to the Rockies in a trade for Tulowitzki. The Rox have no use for Desmond, who would be leaving via free agency after the season. Colorado couldn’t even receive draft pick compensation since Desmond would be a mid-season acquisition. If Desmond’s traded away, it’ll be a 3-team deal or a completely separate transaction. The most likely scenario: he sticks around and the Nats get a draft pick for him when he signs with another team.

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