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On Troy Tulowitzki and appreciating the present

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All of baseball thought it would have forever to appreciate Tulo, but his body betrayed him

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Thursday brought a whole lot of baseball rumors, with the Mets considering selling and the Giants deciding to go for it one last time. And then came a surprising bit of news: Troy Tulowitzki announced that he was retiring, ending a 13-year MLB career that was remarkable in the purest sense of the word.

Drafted by the Colorado Rockies seventh overall in the 2005 MLB Draft, Tulo came out of Long Beach State with a profile that screamed superstar. The Derek Jeter comps were easy, and Troy wasn’t shy about his admiration of the Yankees shortstop, famously taking Jeter’s no. 2 as his own upon being drafted.

Tulowitzki made his major-league debut just over a year later, and truly broke out as part of the famous 2007 Rockies club that advanced all the way to the World Series. He finished second in Rookie of the Year voting and built a terrific case for the best defensive shortstop in the National League, despite losing the Gold Glove to Jimmy Rollins.

That winter Tulo signed a six-year, $31-million extension, reflecting the confidence Colorado had in their young stud. But early in 2008. the injury bug bite him for the first time, and that would become the dominant narrative of his career. He played 101 games that year, losing time to a quad tendon injury and a cut hand, though the cut was self-inflicted after Tulowitzki smashed a bat out of frustration.

The next five seasons showed the world everything that Tulowitzki could be. He ranked in the top fifteen in all of baseball in wRC+ and fWAR over that stretch, as valuable as Miguel Cabrera per 650 plate appearances, winning two Gold Gloves, and even being seriously floated as a possible replacement for his idol Derek Jeter in the Bronx. He also underwent surgery on his groin and fractured a rib over that stretch, and of the players in that five year sample who were more valuable than him, only Mike Trout and Buster Posey played fewer games.

The 2014 season would be his last “full” year in Colorado, but it was possibly his best performance, with a 170 wRC+ and 5.1 fWAR in just 91 games. Hip surgery ultimately cut his campaign short. Had he played a full year, his season prorates to nine wins, highlighting the contrast that would define his career: elite level talent combined with a body that wouldn’t cooperate.

His midseason trade to the Blue Jays in 2015 closed the book on his Rockies career and arguably on his time as an elite talent. Whether you blame age, the turf in Toronto or something else, Tulo would perform up his ceiling again. He also spent more time on the IL than almost anyone in baseball. He was a below-average hitter with the Blue Jays, but was a part of arguably the greatest plate appearance I’ve ever seen live:

Like I’ve said over and over, he also showed the lows of his career, fracturing his shoulder blade after backing into teammate Kevin Pillar’s face. After that, he varied between ineffective and injured, and now his career is over.

There’s no greater tragedy in baseball to me than to see a player with Hall of Fame talent never meet that potential because his own body works against him. Make no mistake about it, Tulo was a Hall of Fame-caliber player. In his five-year peak, the names surrounding him included guys like Albert Pujols, Cabrera, and Adrian Beltre. All three will be in Cooperstown some day, and Tulowitzki won’t, all because his body just couldn’t hold up.

Yankees fans are familiar with this kind of career. Don Mattingly is one of the most celebrated players in the team’s history, and he never got to have the second-half career he deserved because his back gave out. Neither Chien-Ming Wang or Greg Bird had nearly the kind of talent that Mattingly or Tulo did, but both showed flashes of brilliance before they fell apart physically. There’s nothing we can do for their careers now other than remember the things that made them so notable. Fortunately, in Tulowitzki’s case, there’s plenty of video that shows us just how terrific he was:

Tulo’s retirement should also serve as a good reminder to appreciate the players the Yankees have now. We spend so much time when we talk baseball speculating on why a player is slumping, who a team should add, and what the playoff picture is going to look like. All of those things are important and good to talk about, but we should never lose sight of the joy Aaron Judge brings us when he hits balls to parts of Yankee Stadium we thought were unreachable, or how Masahiro Tanaka’s splitter can make us giggle when it’s working.

Ever since the Baby Bombers resurgence, I think there’s been a lot of thinking about the future. We’re all so sure that we’re going to watch this core for a decade or more, it can be easy to take for granted having a middle of the order featuring guys like Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez. Colorado fans thought that they’d have two decades of Tulowitzki to enjoy, and he’d eventually go into the Hall of Fame with a Rockies cap. None of that happened, not because of animosity or a lack of work ethic, but just because Tulo’s body couldn’t do what he asked of it.

Tulowitzki is on a short list of the most naturally talented players I’ve ever seen play. At his peak, he was the kind of player we all pay to watch, the kind as likely to wow you with a dinger as he was to have you jump out of your seat with a web gem. It took just a couple of years for him to go from the peak of the sport to the last guy added to a roster, and now it looks like he’ll end up as just a footnote in the game’s long history.

The future doesn’t exist yet. Enjoy the players you get to see now, and never take greatness on the field for granted. Best of luck at the University of Texas, Troy, and thanks for that at-bat against Andrew Miller.