Replacing Troy Tulowitzki
Way back in 2007 I was living in Colorado and spent the better part of my summer at Coors watching the Rockies earn their first World Series berth, in large part due to their sophomore shortstop. Tulo was somewhat overshadowed by Matt Holliday, whose .340/.405/.607 line with 36 homers, 11 steals, and 257 R+RBI was good enough for second place in National League MVP voting, but the younger, brasher shortstop seemed destined for superstardom and a decade’s worth of first round fantasy selections. Tulo played in 155 games in 2007 and that tally still stands as his career high, with only two seasons since even coming close. Despite the lengthy injury history, I can’t shake the memories of watching a 22-year-old Tulowitzki show off his wide range, cannon arm, and seemingly limitless offensive potential and I continue to seek him out in dynasty leagues.
Tulo’s 2014 half-season has me doubling down on my efforts to get him anywhere I can. He hit .340/.432/.603 with 21 home runs and 123 R+RBI in only 91 games, before hitting the DL in mid-July and missing the rest of the season with a torn labrum in his hip. Tulo is still priced like a top 15-20 player in most leagues and despite the risk, I think he’s worth the cost. 100 games of Tulo plus 62 from a replacement level shortstop is likely to outpace the production of Desmond, Hanley, Reyes, or whoever you believe is the next best option. Add in the possibility that Tulo stays healthy – this will be the year, right? RIGHT?!? – and you have a potentially substantial comparative advantage at the weakest position in the infield.
If you’re as delusional as I am and are heavily invested in Tulowitzki, it’s important to have a backup plan in place. That contingency can take many forms, depending on the depth and format of your league. In shallower leagues, I tend to take another steady but unspectacular shortstop who I would be comfortable playing everyday if I need to: think someone like Erick Aybar or Alcides Escobar. If your league allows daily lineup changes and you have enough bench spots to carry depth, platooning might be the best way to go. How about Brandon Crawford against lefties and Didi Gregorius against righties?
In deep leagues, trying to replace any injured star with a non-zero player is extremely difficult and doubly so at a thin position like shortstop. Sometimes the best you can do is plug in his substitute in real life. In the case of the Rockies, Tulo’s potential replacement could provide sneaky value. No, I’m not talking about lifetime .243/.313/.341 hitter Daniel Descalso, but surprise 25-man roster addition Rafael Ynoa.
Ynoa played eight minor league seasons in the Dodgers organization and never ascended above double-A. He signed with Colorado as a minor league free agent in 2014 and spent most of the season at triple-A, finishing off the season with a cup of coffee in Denver. He hit .297/.356/.419 in Colorado Springs before holding his own in 72 major league plate appearances, slashing .343/.380/.463 with an assist from the BABIP gods (.397). He played second, short, and third in his brief time in the majors and had almost as many plate appearances in the first third of the batting order as the last third.
Ynoa’s 13.8 percent career strikeout rate in the minor leagues highlights his above-average contact ability. His 82.0 percent contract rate in 2014 was a top 50 mark in the PCL amongst batters with at least 250 plate appearances and drilling down a little further, his 87.3 percent in-zone contact rate was 23rd best.
The 2014 performance was a continuation of the same skills he exhibited in 2013 while playing in the double-A Southern League. A BABIP well below his career average resulted in a depressed .267 batting average but the contact skills were evident. His 85.9 percent contact rate was ninth best in the league (again, minimum of 250 plate appearances) and the 91.4 percent contact rate on pitches in the zone was fourth best. Both numbers were comparable to Ender Inciarte, Marcus Semien, and Kevin Kiermaier. Those guys are all three years younger than Ynoa and unlike Ynoa each was a true prospect, but they have all gone on to see their contact ability begin to play in the major leagues.
Ynoa had a strong showing in the Dominican this winter, batting .293/.366/.390 and finishing ninth in the league in batting average. He followed that up with a solid camp, hitting .286/.308/.333 in 63 spring training at-bats and striking out only seven times. The Rockies decided to give Ynoa a spot on the 25-man roster that was assumed would go to former supplemental first rounder Charlie Culberson.
A Tulowitzki injury isn’t Ynoa’s only possible path to at-bats. There was widespread speculation about a potential trade during the offseason, which would open up the six spot. Ynoa also has extensive minor league experience at the hot corner and the keystone. Nolan Arenado is entering his third major league season and has a bright future but he had trouble staying on the field last year, missing a third of the season with a broken finger and pneumonia. DJ LeMahieu will be the Rockies’ everyday second baseman and while his defense is superior to Ynoa’s, their bats are similar. An extended slump from LeMahieu could open up some time there.
Rafael Ynoa is a longshot to return any value in 2015 but he’s a name to keep in mind if anything happens in Colorado’s infield. The Rockies figure to be a bad team and while Descalso would be a safer option, there’s nothing to gain by running him out there every day. I expect the Rockies would keep him in a utility role and see what they have in Ynoa if one of Tulo, Arenado, or LeMahieu is injured, traded, or unproductive. If he gets an opportunity, I think he’ll hit enough to be relevant and could provide a helpful run total depending on his lineup placement.