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Troy Tulowitzki recovering, but Blue Jays are lowering expectations for 2019

TORONTO – Based on everything Ross Atkins sees and hears, Troy Tulowitzki continues recovering well from the surgery that sidelined him for the entire 2018 season.

Tulowitzki’s range of motion has returned since having bone spurs removed from both heels, and he’s feeling strong while practicing with his former college team at Long Beach State. It’s all welcome news for a Blue Jays team that still owes Tulowitzki at least $38 million through 2020.

But Tulowitzki last appeared on a major-league field on July 28, 2017, the day he landed on C.J. Cron at first base and seriously injured his right ankle. His attempts to return in 2018 were in vain. Objectively speaking, then, it’d be irresponsible to bank on vintage Tulowitzki at age 34.

When asked about the likelihood of a full and productive 2019 season from the five-time all-star, Atkins acknowledged that the Blue Jays can no longer expect that level of contribution.

“Candidly, and I think Troy would agree, that’s not likely,” Atkins told the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America Wednesday afternoon. “He will have to over-achieve to play shortstop at an above-average level with above-average offensive performance for 140 games. That would be unlikely based on what has occurred in the last two and a half years, but that doesn’t mean he’s not going to do it.

“But candidly,” the GM added, “I don’t think that’s likely.”

The numbers back that assertion up. Consider that…

• The only regular shortstops over the age of 30 in 2018 were 31-year-olds Brandon Crawford, Jordy Mercer and Alcides Escobar.

• Only five players age 34 or older played a single inning at shortstop in 2018. All of them started fewer than 20 games at the position: Yuli Gurriel, Russell Martin, Jose Reyes, Adam Rosales and Cliff Pennington.

• Of the 130 players to appear at shortstop in 2018, 106 were in their 20s.

Those numbers suggest teams prefer younger players at shortstop, where a first quick step can be vital to keeping runs off of the board. In Toronto, 25-year-old Lourdes Gurriel Jr. has supplanted Tulowitzki as the incumbent at short with 22-year-old Richard Urena another potential factor.

Those players have impressed Tulowitzki, who debuted at age 21 in 2006. Yet he insisted in August that he still aspires to be the best shortstop in baseball.

“If there’s someone that’s better than me, I’ll be the first one to say it,” Tulowitzki said.

“I’m a shortstop,” he added. “If someone’s better than me, I’ll pack my bags and go home.”

Atkins expects to speak with Tulowitzki and his agent at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas next week, but to this point he hasn’t given much consideration to asking him to learn a new position.

“He’s so dependable as a defender when he’s on the field,” Atkins said. “The way that defensive alignment and positioning has occurred in the game recently, I don’t think the advantage would be strong enough. If the ball’s hit in the vicinity (the hitter’s) out.”

At this point, Gurriel Jr. projects as Toronto’s primary shortstop, though he could also contribute at other positions throughout the season to build his versatility. At the same time, Gurriel Jr. has all of 65 games in the big leagues, so the Blue Jays are pleased that their 12-year veteran intends to compete for the starting shortstop job this spring.

“That’s absolutely what we want him to be thinking,” Atkins said. “I think any professional athlete, especially someone that has had his track record, is not going to be thinking about his career in terms of being a pinch hitter, being a DH, being someone that could from time to time play shortstop. He’s just not there.”

Trading Tulowitzki seems completely unrealistic at this point considering he’ll earn $20 million in 2019 and $14 million in 2020 with a $4 million buyout for his 2021 option. Until he’s healthy, it’s hard to imagine serious trade talks taking place.

With Martin, however, the Blue Jays have more flexibility despite the catcher’s $20 million salary. If the Blue Jays absorbed most of Martin’s contract–say $15-17 million–they could realistically expect trade interest from one of the many teams seeking catching depth.

“Any team that is looking for catching would have interest in Russ,” Atkins acknowledged. “The market for catching is certainly there and Russ has a great track record.”

Regardless of what happens with Martin, Tulowitzki will arrive at spring training needing to beat the odds. They’re stacked against any 34-year-old shortstop, and those returning from injury are at a far greater disadvantage. By now, even Tulowitzki’s general manager has to concede that point.

“We’re not going to label him anything just yet,” Atkins said. “But I think it’s unlikely that he plays an above-average shortstop for us for 140 games.”

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