The Colorado Rockies are one of the biggest surprises of the early MLB season, finding themselves at 16-10 and all alone atop the NL West. But in recent days they have gotten a stark reminder of their mortality when they lost star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to a strained left rotator cuff.
Though Tulowitzki proved to be of the day-to-day, it has to be a concern for the Rockies who have a razor thin margin of error when it comes to maintaining their winning ways. That is just part of the deal when you have the likes of Jon Garland and Jeff Francis in your rotation. As the top scoring team in the National League, the Rockies rely heavily on their lineup to carry the team, with much of that weight resting on the shoulders of Tulowitzki. The altitude is and always will be a huge factor for Colorado and as a result, if the Rockies don't score the Rockies don't win. History has also shown that the Rockies don't score or win quite so much without their stud shortstop in the lineup.
Just look at how the number of games Tulo plays versus how many games the Rox win:
-2007: Tulowitzki played 155 games, the Rockies won 90 games
-2008: 101 games played, 74 wins
-2009: 151 games played, 92 wins
-2010: 122 games played, 82 wins
-2011: 143 games played, 73 wins
-2012: 47 games played, 64 wins
There is no direct cause-and-effect conclusion there, but it seems pretty obvious that the more games they get out of their best player, the better they are. That would certainly be true of most any team, but Colorado's fortunes seem to be especially tied to Troy, especially in recent years. This is not a deep team on either side of the ledger. Their pitching staff has been a massive problem for years and likely will continue to be for eternity, but it has taken a turn for the worse under the current regime's misguided efforts to build around high contact pitchers. But even on the position player side, the Rockies lack both a potent bench and a rich pipeline of prospects.
That is what makes Tulowitzki's recent health scare so, well, scary for them. This is a player who has played six-plus seasons and been placed on the disabled list four different times with a handful of other day-to-day injuries thrown into the mix between DL stints. Tulo has just about every skill you could ask for from a franchise shortstop, but staying healthy is not one of them.
Make no mistake, staying healthy is a skill. Some players are just more injury-prone than others. Two of his DL trips were of the "freak injury" variety, once being cut by a broken bat and once for being hit by a pitch on the wrist, but he also missed over 100 games in 2012 with a groin problem and 45+ games in 2008 a strained quad. And then there are all the other times he has been slowed by hip bursitis, quad tightness and groin soreness. Well, now you can his shoulder to the ever growing list of body parts that give Troy trouble and he is only 28 years old.
There are enough red flags around Tulowitzki's health to at least make one wonder if the Rockies are wise to continue building their team around him. With a contract that runs through 2020, they certainly have hitched their wagon, but they still have time to cut loose before their prize pony breaks a leg and leaves them stranded in the wilderness. A team like the St. Louis Cardinals, who showed interest in a Tulo trade over the off-season, can afford to take that gamble. Their big league roster has multiple stars and high quality secondary players while their farm system seems to have bottomless pool of talent, so to them Tulowitzki is someone who could push them over the top but also wouldn't cripple them if he were lost to injury.
If the Rockies really want to build a winner, Tulowitzki could certainly be their ticket to doing so, but as a trade piece. Given their extreme difficulty in developing pitchers, dealing Tulo for a treasure trove of arms might be their only shot at conscripting high-end arms into their rotation. It is only with that infusion of arms that they can afford to play with a lineup that doesn't have Tulowitzki in it.
That is really what this boils down to. With Troy's fragility, the Rockies are going to be playing plenty of games without him in the lineup before his long contract runs out. Wouldn't they be better off playing all those games with a good pitching staff that they imported from some other team's farm systems rather than churning through the usual dreck that their system continues to produce?
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It might not be just Tulo. Todd Helton has the same pattern, 150+ games in their two 90-win seasons in 2007, 2009, and bad years in 2008, 2010, and he's been fading the last two. That left-right combo in the middle of the order drives the Rockies offense, and somehow, Cargo is no substitute for Helton at his best.