Maybe the New York Yankees‘ search for Derek Jeter’s successor isn’t on just yet. But when Jeter announced his pending retirement on Facebook last week, he surely moved that search higher up on the organization’s list of priorities. 

We’re going to hear all sorts of candidates discussed in the coming months. One who’s going to be discussed more heavily than others is Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who, like Jeter, wears No. 2 and boasts an excellent bat for the position.

But rather than wait for that chatter to heat up, I’m going to get this out there now: I don’t like it. If there’s an ideal successor for Jeter out there, it’s not Tulo.

We’ll get to that. But first, I should acknowledge the genesis of this article.

I didn’t hear it, but Troy E. Renck of The Denver Post noted last week that Sports Illustrated columnist Tom Verducci had gone on a radio show and declared without hesitation that Tulowitzki would be the next Yankees shortstop. Renck‘s next step was to get Tulo himself to chime in, and he did:

There’s no doubt that the question is not going to go away. Look at this (past) offseason with the trade rumors involving me. You try not to pay attention to them, but at the same time, they are there. My job is to help the Rockies win games this season. That’s what is in front of me right now. It’s going to be out there. I understand and I am fine with that. It’s not the first time it’s happened.

Tulo, of course, was linked to the St. Louis Cardinals this winter, notably in a report from Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports. He seems to understand that his name is liable to pop up whenever there’s a big-name club in need of a shortstop. Thus, he’ll be ready for the Yankees rumors.

The Yankees and Rockies actually working out a trade would be complicated, as the Yankees don’t have much to trade and the Rockies might not be that desperate to unload Tulo in the first place. But we’re going to skip right past that to the question of whether Tulo would fit the Yankees’ need. This, after all, is why we’re here.

I’ll give Tulo this much credit: It’s not because his bat doesn’t play well outside of Coors Field. His career home/road splits (via FanGraphs) are surprisingly even:

Tulowitzki hasn’t been as good away from home, but those numbers away from Coors are still easily above-average. They’re also still outstanding relative to today’s light-hitting shortstops.

So no, the bat’s not the problem. My worries have more to do with defense.

Which, if you take one look at Tulo‘s defensive performances wouldn’t seem to make sense. For the sake of getting everything out in the open, I’ll present those numbers as well:

Throughout his career, Tulo‘s been a very good defensive shortstop. That’s a huge deal when you consider the inherent defensive value of the shortstop position itself, and it is a big reason why the only shortstop with more WAR since 2007 is Hanley Ramirez (who, of course, spent a year at third base).

But it’s the age column where we’re going to start getting skeptical. That’s the part that worries me.

In 2008, Tom Tango had a piece on The Hardball Times about the defensive aging curves of shortstops. Looking at things from one perspective, he found that shortstop defense peaks between the ages of 22 and 24. Looking at things from another perspective, he found that shortstop defense peaks no later than age 28. Either way, a shortstop’s best defense is likely between 22 and 28.

If we take these conclusions and apply them to Tulowitzki‘s defense, they fit well enough. His best defensive year was in 2007, his age-22 campaign. And while he did bounce back nicely from an injury-ruined 2012 season in 2013, he didn’t quite get back to the same defensive level he had been occupying from ages 22 to 26.

In light of that, it’s possible that Tulo‘s defensive decline is underway. We’ll have a better idea once we see what happens in 2014, but it’s certainly plausible given his age. His body type is a factor too, as Tulowitzki carries over 200 pounds on a 6’3″ frame. A big guy like him isn’t going to stay nimble forever.

So in all likelihood, the Yankees wouldn’t be trading for a guy who would be a great all-around shortstop. Instead, they’d get a guy whose defense at shortstop would be getting increasingly ordinary with age.

“Ah, yes,” you say, “but why is that a deal-breaker? The Yankees have been getting subpar defense at shortstop for years. They know how to live with it.”

If we go by the metrics, this is true. Jeter stands alone as the worst defensive shortstop ever measured by UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) and DRS (Defensive Runs Saved). The Yankees have been able to live with that for so many years because Jeter’s offensive production has made up for his lack of defensive production. Why couldn’t it be par for the course with Tulowitzki?

Mainly because of the one thing Jeter had for a long time that Tulo‘s really never had: durability.

Last year was only the fourth season out of 19 that Jeter didn’t play in at least 148 games. Tulowitzki is only through his age-28 season, and he already has four such seasons. Three of them have come in the last four years, with the worst being 2012. According to Baseball Prospectus, he missed 113 games due to groin surgery, prompting discussion about whether a move to third base was the best thing for him.

A move to third base didn’t happen in 2013. With defensive wizard Nolan Arenado stationed at third base in Colorado, it’s not going to happen in 2014. But if Tulo were to find himself on the Yankees in 2015? Yeah, a move to third base would absolutely be in the cards.

The choice before the Yankees, after all, would be whether to put Tulo‘s health at risk just so they could have his bat at shortstop or to move him to third base, thereby decreasing the risk of injury and getting more of his bat, period.

The latter would be the easy choice, and that’s without even considering the possibility that a move to a less physically demanding position would rescue Tulowitzki from a defensive decline.

And lest it cross your mind, we don’t actually think Alex Rodriguez would be there to block him, do we? If the Yankees want him back after his 2014 suspension, they’ll have an opening at designated hitter after waving goodbye to Alfonso Soriano. If they don’t want to keep him, they’ll swallow the money he’s still owed and just release him. If the Yankees wanted to make Tulo fit at the hot corner, they could.

This, obviously, is pointing out that there is a spot for Tulowitzki on the Yankees. Just not so much at shortstop, which is the whole point of his being linked to the Yankees. Whether right away or shortly down the road, it’s likely that a trade for him would put the Yankees right back on the hunt for Jeter’s long-term successor.

And we haven’t even talked about the money yet. Regardless of what the Yankees were to offer the Rockies, it’s hard to imagine them taking on anything less than 90 or 100 percent of the money he’s still owed. And per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, that’s a minimum of $118 million through 2021.

The Yankees can afford to take on all of that. They’re the Yankees. But since their payroll commitments for 2015 and 2016 are already in the $145-150 million range, taking on Tulo would be another nail in the coffin of the idea of them ever getting under the luxury tax threshold.

So who is the ideal successor for Jeter at shortstop for the Yankees? 

Right now, I haven’t a clue. I don’t feel any pressure to have one. This is a subject that we’re going to be talking about a lot throughout the course of the year, after all. Many more candidates will come to light, and some are bound to look like very real solutions.

For now, the big possibility out there to be discussed is Tulowitzki. And if it were up to me, he’d be crossed off the list.


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