The Yankees waited all of 23 hours before making headlines in 2019, inking shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to a one-year deal for the league minimum late on New Year’s Day. While Tulowitzki is certainly a more substantial name than player at this point, his acquisition still qualifies as big news to open the year.
The deal feels like a bit of a layup at such a low cost, and provided it doesn’t interfere with the Yankees’ pursuit of superstar Manny Machado, it probably is. As long as the Yankees are still focused on making the most impactful addition they can this winter, and all indications so far are that Tulowitzki’s signing will not affect Machado, then this is a fair move by New York.
However, whenever a team secures a veteran on a low-cost, one-year deal, it’s common to view the transaction as low risk. The thinking goes that when a team pays so little and makes such an insignificant commitment, it can’t possibly lose. That sentiment has obviously cropped up now that the Yankees have signed an aged former star to the league minimum:
The #Yankees informed Manny Machado days ago that they were signing Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to minimum contract as a no-risk move. Tulo has played only 66 games the last 2 seasons.— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) January 2, 2019
1/Some quick thoughts on #Yankees reaching agreement with Tulowitzki. They thought he looked athletic and healthy in workouts and see agreement as low-risk (MLB minimum)/potential high reward. Plan is for him to play SS. If he is even league avg and provides a bridge until— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) January 2, 2019
To say that this deal carries no risk for the Yankees is a poor characterization. Signing Tulowitzki doesn’t threaten to upend the Yankees’ season, but it does bring with it plenty of real performance downside. The possibility, or even likelihood, that Tulowitzki is wholly washed up makes this deal a risk for the Yankees.
It’s easy to call a signing no-risk because if things go south, the team can cut bait at no cost. Indeed, if Tulowitzki is healthy, makes starts at shortstop in the Bronx, and shows a complete inability to play baseball, then the Yankees can let him go without a second thought.
Yet that doesn’t mean that signing Tulowitzki is without risk. For the most part, if a team wants to find out if a player has anything left, they must let that player play. With Didi Gregorius on the shelf for the first few months of the season, if not longer, the opportunity to play shortstop will certainly be on the table for Tulowitzki.
Letting Tulowitzki record even a couple months’ worth of at-bats is a gamble. A small gamble, but a roll of the dice nonetheless. Should the Yankees install Tulowiztki at short for just a small period of time, only to find that he is hapless, it will materially affect the team’s chances in 2019.
Think back just to last season, when the Yankees signed Neil Walker for just one-year and $4 million. That signing was heralded as virtually no-risk, as the veteran came at a low cost and without a long-term commitment. Walker, of course, was hitting .159/.261/.259 on July 1st. He was not close to replacement level during the early months of the season, and the Yankees were worse off for it. With the benefit of hindsight, would anyone argue that the Walker signing was risk-free now?
It’s unlikely Tulowitzki will be exactly as bad as Walker was to start 2018, but that level of ineptitude is certainly on the table. Tulowitzki hit just .249/.300/.378 in 2017, good for an 80 OPS+. He did not play at all last season. The floor could entirely fall out from beneath Tulowitzki this year, leaving all sorts of sub-.600 OPS figures in play.
That’s the risk the Yankees would incur if they gave Tulowitzki a few dozen starts on the infield dirt early in 2019. At full health, even at age-34, even a full season removed from playing, Tulowiztiki should be able to be able to do better than Walker did to start last season, but it is far from a guarantee.
If Tulowitzki does flop out of the gate, and the Yankees are forced either to wait it out with him at short until Gregorius comes back, or find another replacement, the season wouldn’t be in jeopardy. Bad play from Tulowitzki could only move the needle so much, perhaps shaving a few percentage points off the team’s divisional odds in the worst-case scenario.
That worst-case scenario exists, though, and it ensures that this signing carries risk. Ultimately, this will all look like small potatoes if the Yankees ink Machado. A better-than-expected recovery from Gregorius could also render Tulowitzki’s signing relatively moot. Just don’t write off Tulowitzki as no-risk merely because he comes on a one-year pact. He possesses some vague upside as an erstwhile star, but the chance that he is completely done engenders just a bit of risk.