You may or may not have noticed it in the news, but a talented Yankees shortstop has been on the mend, and is expected to return to the team soon. No, I’m not talking about Didi Gregorius — I’m talking about Troy Tulowitzki.
When the Yankees signed the oft-injured shortstop on January 4, they looked for him to fill in for the first half of the season while Gregorius recovered from Tommy John surgery. Unfortunately, and probably not surprisingly, Tulowitzki soon joined the Dutch Knight on the IL on April 3, with a low-grade calf strain. The Yankees then turned to second baseman Gleyber Torres, who has filled in admirably at the position, and Tulowitzki soon found himself banished into Jacoby Ellsbury levels of obscurity.
Following an early-May setback that kept him on the shelf, Tulowitzki is now “pretty much over the injury,” according to Lindsey Alder of The Athletic, and is expected to begin a rehab assignment soon. Normally, this would be good news, as it would allow Torres to return to second base and allow DJ LeMahieu to resume duties as an everyday utility player (and thus improve the team’s overall defense). The problem is that Didi Gregorius is already on a rehab assignment and is expected to return by the end of the week. The moment where Tulowitzki becomes superfluous will, it seems, arrive before Tulowitzki himself.
Both the Yankees and Tulowitzki appear to understand this conundrum, as the career shortstop has been taking groundballs at third base in order to improve his flexibility, as he likely will take a backup role. But what exactly will that role be? Kendrys Morales is the obvious choice to be sent packing once Didi Gregorius returns, which would leave the team with a bench consisting of Thairo Estrada, Cameron Maybin, and Austin Romine. Despite his solid performance, the rookie Estrada will probably find himself back in Scranton, although he will find himself at the top of the call-up list pending future injuries.
Most clearly, it seems that the one-time All-Star shortstop will find himself in a utility infield role once he finishes his rehab assignment. Chances are, this will help keep Tulowitzki healthy (it has long been my belief that he should have been moved off of shortstop years ago to keep him healthy). However, he has neither played a backup role in his career nor played a position other than shortstop. This raises the question of how he will adapt to two significant changes and whether his performance will suffer in his limited playing time.
Building off of that, furthermore, is the question, “Where does the playing time come from?” Assuming a healthy infield (a big assumption for 2019), DJ LeMahieu, not Tulowitzki, will be the first choice to move around. For example, LeMahieu could play second with Torres at short when Didi sits. Similarly, LeMahieu could play third or first to give Gio Urshela or Luke Voit the day off. Only when multiple infielders will receive either a full or half-day off will Tulowitzki likely see the field. This will likely happen fairly frequently for the first few weeks after Didi’s return, in order to ease him back in, but Tulowitzki will still be in rehab during that time. Thus, only by forcing the issue and hitting anything akin to his career 118 OPS+ will Tulowitzki receive playing time.
Unfortunately, this could entirely be a moot point. Yankees fans are uncomfortably familiar with the notion, “These things always have a way of sorting themselves out” in 2019. Nonetheless, when Tulowitzki’s upcoming, albeit not imminent, return starts to loom on the horizon, the Yankees will have to deal with yet another roster crunch.