June 11, 2013. It may be easy to forget after the way things ended, but for the first two and a half months of last season, Troy Tulowitzki was probably the MVP of league. At the conclusion of play on that day, he carried a batting line of .353/.421/.651 -- good for an OPS of 1.072. He was on pace to reach 10 wins above replacement (WAR) in both the Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference measuring sticks, and he had been intentionally walked more times than he had hit into a double play.
On the other side of the ball, he had made only three errors while playing his typical highlight real defense.
I could go on, but instead I'll just leave this link to a piece I wrote a few days after this date last season shortly after Tulo was shelved with a broken rib on a freak play where he made a diving stop up the middle. It's designed to capture Tulo's career at that moment and illustrated everything he's done to become the player he is now. Since the season was falling apart by the time he really got back up to game speed, I think the start of the 2014 season is a good place to pick up from there.
What I really want to make clear here is that I don't think we've seen Tulo's best season yet. Not even close. On several different instances, we've seen glimpses of what that might look like, but weird circumstances have always prevented all of the pieces coming together.
In 2009 he changed his batting stance taking the single largest step towards becoming the hitter he is today, but he didn't do it until June of that season so his April and May numbers were terrible.
In 2010 he had that volcanic stretch of games in September where he hit 14 home runs in 15 games, but his overall season was shortened due to a broken wrist after being hit by a pitch in June.
In 2011 Tulo stayed mostly healthy, but he battled through this odd problem where he became so good at making contact and not striking out that it actually worked against him, forcing him to readjust. (It's a long read but I explain all of that and more in this article.)
2012 was obviously shot with his groin injury, but he bounced back big time in the first half of 2013 and came the closest he's come yet to putting together that truly monstrous season before suffering the freak rib fracture.
The point is that one of these seasons, Tulo's not going to roll snake eyes when it comes to injury luck. On one level, it was crushing to watch Tulo go on the DL again last season for a broken rib on a bizarre diving play, but in another sense, last season was excellent news on the long-term injury front because he kept his legs healthy all year. That's the thing that has the single best shot at sabotaging Tulo's career, and after getting smoked by this demon in 2012, Tulo got off the mat and scored a point for 2013.
It's awesome to hear him talk about the progress he's made in this department too. Tulo just oozes confidence that he's found a way to keep this under control through a strictly regimented routine which includes specific stretching before and after every game, a special diet, swimming, yoga, and other lifestyle changes. He's also agreed to stop fielding a hundred and some odd ground balls before every single game like he used to as that probably contributed to some of the issues. He's now accepted that 30 or 40 is enough most days.
In any case, I feel very strongly that the ingredients are all there for Tulo to put together a couple of eye popping campaigns. He's entering his age 29 season, so while the clock is not all that far from becoming an issue, he's still got some time left in his golden baseball years.
I know that 8+ WAR season is out there for him, and at this point, he really only needs things out of his control to not break so horribly. Because I can assure you of one thing: he's done everything humanly possible to make great things happen on his end. When it all comes together, it's going to be so freaking glorious to watch.
As far as the "state of the position" is concerned, Tulo represents something key for this franchise: a chance to put a significant gap between the Rockies and all of the other teams in the league at this position. It's one thing to have a player who's among the best at his position; it's a whole different ballgame when you have someone with the capability to lap the field. If that happens, it allows you to be mediocre in other places and still have team success. (This does NOT mean you can have multiple black holes on the roster though like we did last season. No one player can make up for those.)
Want more proof that Tulo totally changes the equation for the Rockies? Since the start of his rookie season in 2007, Colorado is 419-409 in the games Tulo has started and just 131-176 in the games he doesn't start. Those come out to winning percentages of .506 and .427. If you extrapolate those out to 162 game seasons, you get an 82-80 team when Tulo is starting, and a 69-93 team when he is not.
Now even I don't believe that Tulo is a 13 win player, but this does suggest that merely having his presence, intensity, and leadership on the field everyday is enormously important to this club on top of the obvious statistical advantage he brings to the table. I know we've worn this out all winter but we only do it because it really rings true. If Tulo plays more than 150 games this season, the Rockies have a real shot to surprise some people.
Because this series is called "State of the Position," I have to write a little bit about what's going to happen if the Rockies don't have Tulo for a portion of the season. However, since we've all already seen that movie before, I don't think you need me to tell you that it wouldn't end very well.
The first line of defense is the combination of Josh Rutledge and DJ LeMahieu. Both can play shortstop, by definition, and both probably will fill in there from time to time when Tulo is forced to take a day off by manager Walt Weiss.
Unfortunately the drop off is evident right away. While both are capable filling in briefly, both also see their gloves lose effectiveness when they move to the left side of second base. In addition, their bats are light years behind what Tulo brings to the table here. It's not that LeMahieu and Rutledge are terrible, it's just that Tulo is so good, the plunge here becomes astronomical no matter who takes over.
On the farm
The next two most obvious candidates are less prospects and more guys who will start the year in Colorado Springs and can provide some relief if needed.
Paul Janish, whom the Rockies signed to a minor-league deal this offseason, is first. He is an absolute atrocity with the bat (no I don't care that he's hit well in 33 spring training plate appearances), but he actually could fill Tulo's shoes pretty well on the defensive side of the ball. Just be prepared for your OPS from this position to get cut in half.
In a really big emergency, the Rockies could also turn to Charlie Culberson, who can play all over the diamond including some shortstop. But, this is an option of the last resort variety.
Further down the minor league chain you have Cristhian Adames, another all-glove, no-bat shortstop who spent all of 2013 with the Double-A Tulsa Drillers and is already on the 40-man roster.
Looking years down the line, the Rockies also have Trevor Story and Rosell Herrera multiple levels away from the majors, but both are likely to be forced off the position or out of the organization if they see success moving up the minor-league ladder while Tulo is lighting the majors on fire.
Who's available in the event of a catastrophe?
If the Rockies get this far down in the dumps, it's going to be a journeyman borderline major league player out of somebody else's garbage. The Rockies already have the best this position has to offer so they're not going to be adding anything great here from outside the organization, not that there's much available anyway. In fact, the lack of talent at this position elsewhere is a good thing for Colorado, because it once again underlines how much better it is to have Troy Tulowitzki playing shortstop for your team than any other player in the game.