SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – From his perch atop the shortstop phylum, Troy Tulowitzki peers down and sees something very different from what he grew up watching. When Tulo was a teenager, the shortstop position was in the middle of not just a renaissance but a revolution. For a position so romanticized, it had subsisted with a Murderers' Row of mediocre hitters. Not in the '90s. Not with the big three.
Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Alex Rodriguez, the story went, would forever change the position. Jeter reinforced what Cal Ripken Jr. had proven: shortstop didn't have a height cutoff. And Garciaparra, though not as tall, was bigger than Jeter and brought an element of batsmanship to the position unseen since, what, Arky Vaughan? And then there was A-Rod: the archetype, the T-1000, as if molded from liquid metal and shaped to play short at a caliber no one could fathom.
And now? Now it's just Tulo, all alone, the best shortstop on the planet by a wide margin as the position flows after the ebb of the '90s. That era bore more a happy bit of confluence than some sort of seismic shift at the most important spot on the field, snuffing out the revolution almost before it even began.
"It's such a demanding position," Tulowitzki said. "You look at those guys, and other than Jeter, they all had to move. I just think the wear and tear on your body can take such a toll. Look at all the things Nomar has gone through. Sometimes it's just safer for organizations to put those guys at third."
It's where Rodriguez landed before his hips betrayed him, where Cal was put out to pasture, where Nomar didn't last before moving across the diamond to first base – and where Tulowitzki does not want to end up.
Even though his Colorado Rockies remain something of a mess – calling the pitching staff in shambles is an insult to disarray – the 28-year-old Tulowitzki faces perhaps the most important season of his career. He comes off a season in which he played just 47 games because of a lingering groin injury that necessitated surgery, and six years into his career Tulowitzki has played more than 150 games just twice.
When Tulowitzki plays, there are but a handful more valuable players anywhere. At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, he manages the defensive wizardry of a player three inches and 20 pounds smaller. Tulowitzki is what Jeter, his idol, always tried to be: someone who translated his athleticism into tangible defensive skills. Jeter had the jump throw; Tulo's got the jump throw and about 50 other tricks in a bag that would exceed federal aviation weight limits.
Tulowitzki is also a better hitter than Jeter ever was – a better hitter, frankly, than almost every shortstop in history. From 2009-11, Tulowitzki posted an on-base-plus-slugging of over .900. Only A-Rod, Honus Wagner and Ernie Banks have more .900-plus OPS seasons at shortstop. Lest you think it's just a function of the thin air on Colorado, only Wagner, Vaughan, A-Rod, Banks, Barry Larkin and Alan Trammell have more seasons with an OPS+ – adjusted for ballpark and league, with 100 being average – of greater than 130.
What Jeter has is longevity, and at shortstop, that is career-defining. His sustained excellence – a career .313/.383/.442 line – is buttressed by the fact that he's one of just five career shortstops with more than 10,000 plate appearances. The others are Luke Appling, Ozzie Smith, Luis Aparicio and Omar Vizquel – the first three Hall of Famers and Vizquel a candidate as much for his durability as his numbers.
Garciaparra's and A-Rod's bodies simply didn't hold up to the rigors. Nomar's back-to-back batting titles produced two of the seven best averages by a shortstop (.372 and .357). A-Rod's transcendent 1996 season – .358/.414/.631 as a 20-year-old – included the second most runs (141) and doubles (54) for a shortstop. The doubles leader? Nomar in '02, with 56.
"I think we got spoiled with those guys who came around at the same time," said Rockies manager Walt Weiss, a 14-year big-league shortstop who not once had a league-average OPS. "It's really difficult to do, to be an impact offensive player and play that position. The demands of the position dictate it's going to be difficult to find those guys hitting in the middle of the order offensively."
The current drought saw the highest OPS by a shortstop being Ian Desmond's .845 – and the next highest was 38-year-old Jeter's .791. Hanley Ramirez, once Tulowitzki's mate in shortstop excellence, continued to fade, and third base is an inevitability. Jimmy Rollins, who once won an MVP, is on the downside of his career. Starlin Castro, now 23, has carved out a niche as a perfectly acceptable hitter but nobody's idea of a superstar. Elvis Andrus and Alcides Escobar are very similar players: great gloves and baserunning instincts with some average and little to no pop. Yunel Escobar is a perpetual disappointment. J.J. Hardy can't get on base. Ditto Alexei Ramirez. Brendan Ryan's .555 OPS was the 65th worst of the last 50 years. Of those 65 marks, 43 have been from shortstops.
Asdrubal Cabrera certainly is intriguing – especially in his age-27 season – and Jose Reyes' dynamism is unmatched at any position and Desmond gets a shot at following up on a season in which he hit more home runs over 130 games than he did the first three seasons of his career combined.
"If there's one thing I pay attention to, it's shortstops around the game, so I can tell you a little bit of what I like and dislike about 'em, pick 'em apart pretty good," Tulowitzki said. "You want to be or remain the best, so you look at what other guys are doing and try to be better than them."
He doesn't see a superstar anywhere aside from the mirror, even though organizations do everything they can to develop franchise shortstops. Nobody questions the value of the position. Most executives agree the best prospect in baseball is Jurickson Profar, the 20-year-old shortstop for the Rangers whose bat isn't nearly as advanced as that of Oscar Taveras or Wil Myers, two other elite minor leaguers. Difference is, Profar plays shortstop, and between the value of the position and the paucity of elite players, crowning Profar makes sense.
Positional scarcity is a powerful tool. Arizona traded Trevor Bauer, the No. 3 pick in the 2011 draft, in a deal for shortstop Didi Gregorius, who scouts agree profiles more as a glove-first, sorta-maybe-might-be-able-to-hit shortstop. The youngest player in a major league camp this year? Addison Russell, 19, with the Oakland A's. A shortstop, of course, who could debut in the big leagues by his 20th birthday.
Because everyone is looking for that next great shortstop, that flicker of hope the '90s weren't just some halcyon moment to be repeated sometime way in the future when things just happen to align right again. That's the likelier scenario: that baseball slogs on always hunting for more Jeters, Nomars, A-Rods.
Today, there is but one Tulo, signed through the 2020 season. Teams call about him often. The Rockies say no. Trading a Picasso for five finger paintings is too much for them to stomach, even if it might be the right move for their future. Some ask, too, about whether Tulowitzki will end up like A-Rod and Nomar and Cal – like pretty much everyone but Jeter. Among 6-foot-3 shortstops, only Ripken and Jeter have lasted at the position more than 1,300 games.
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"It's the only position I know," he said, and it's easy to understand why Tulowitzki is so fiercely protective. He has been a shortstop since childhood. The position isn't just embedded in him. It is him, his baseball identity, the fulcrum of his livelihood. He won't ever give it up. Only a lack of cooperation from his body will.
Tulowitzki embraces his place among shortstops – as the standard bearer for the game's regal position. There still is a place for the big, powerful, productive shortstop. Just a small one. For now it's lonely, him and nobody else, keeper of the revolution that never happened.
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