TAMPA, Fla.— The first-glance assessment of Troy Tulowitzki these days takes you back a handful of years, to a time when the Rockies’ shortstop was a perennial MVP candidate, and Coors Field rocked to the booming bass line of “Tu-lo!” chants.
On Wednesday, at a sunny Steinbrenner Field, Tulowitzki hammered pitches during batting practice, spraying them in every direction. The real attention grabber was the rocket he drilled high off the left-centerfield scoreboard, impacting with enough velocity to create a perfect, blacked-out square of LED bulbs.
That was the exclusive neighborhood usually reserved for Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton, and for Tulowitzki to pay a visit suggests the loud bat still can do damage, despite missing all of last season because of injury, and playing only 66 games the year before. Even watching him at shortstop, it’s difficult to pick up any imperfections. The leaner, lighter Tulowitzki is clearly on a mission, trying to defy the natural skepticism that comes with being a recently-brittle, 34-year-old at a high-impact defensive position.
In flipping through these snapshots, you can imagine premium Tulo because the scars are wrapped in navy-blue socks, covered up by pinstriped pants. The fractured ankle from 2017, the double-heel surgery to remove bone spurs that erased his ’18 season as well. Just because Tulowitzki appears to move fine all these months later, don’t underestimate the exhaustive process, or the physical tax he still pays going forward.
Only when another patient of the same procedure is brought up, the Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes, does Tulowitzki give a hint of what he’s survived to reach this point, what he hopes has brought him to the brink of that ever-evasive championship. Tulowitzki doesn’t know all the details of Cespedes’ condition, but admitted that the surgery was “really, really similar” to his own. And that’s not necessarily a positive prognosis.
“It’s not easy to come back from,” Tulowitzki said. “I’ll tell you that.”
Believe him, because Tulowitzki isn’t back yet. He’s in a dream spot, wearing a Yankees’ uniform, on one of the teams favored to win a World Series — something Tulo hasn’t accomplished during a 12-year career. And he has a chance to be their starting shortstop on a fairly regular basis, with Aaron Boone planning to use a rotation of infielders designed to keep him on his feet for as long as possible. Problem is, neither Tulo nor the Yankees will know if he’s capable of that until weeks from now, when he’s tackled the grind of daily baseball. There is no simulating the toll it takes.
“The question for now for him is going to be the ability to bounce back,” Boone said. “And can he endure the rigors of bring a regular. But he looks really good moving around in the field and where he’s at, this point, with his swing.”
The Yankees have to figure out how to best preserve that, fortify it during the Grapefruit League schedule, then devise a maintenance plan for the regular season. Even if there are flashes of vintage Tulo on display, as there were Wednesday at Steinbrenner Field, those should not be mistaken for a total green light going forward. More like yellow. The Yankees will be mindful of his medical history, and Tulo has to be honest about his physical condition. The key to that? “Communication,” he said.
With that approach, the dice-roll with Tulo could work out well for both sides. The Yankees got a $20-million player for $550,000 this season in piecing together a bridge to Didi Gregorius, who is expected to return from Tommy John surgery before the All-Star break. And Tulo, whose release by the Blue Jays helped steer him to the Bronx, not only gets to rejuvenate his career, but be on a championship contender.
“It was a chance to win — win a ring,” Tulowitzi said of his decision. “I’ve done a lot of things in my career, and one thing that’s missing — I’ve been close, but I hadn’t won a ring. So it was strictly on that.”
As for what his role may be in that title quest, Tulowitzki isn’t too worried about that now. Getting through spring training is the first hurdle, then he’ll see what the plan is beyond that.
“I always believed in my abilities,” Tulowitzi said. “Ever since I was a young player. I’ve been in tough situations before. Had to earn my way on teams, so it’s just the game of baseball. It’s a different challenge for me, but I’m ready for it.”
So far, there’s been no reason to doubt him.