The recent news that both Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez will undergo season-ending surgery has thrown a monkey wrench into the Mets’ offseason plans.
Or maybe this development brings some clarity to the team's expected pursuit of a quality shortstop and corner outfielder. Perhaps the latest round of surgeries for the oft-injured superstars is yet another glaring sign that the Mets would be wise to invest their resources elsewhere.
Tulowitzki's and Gonzalez’s extensive injury histories are well known. Due to various physical maladies, each player has reached the 130-games-played plateau in just one of the last four seasons: for Tulowitzki, it was back in 2011; for Gonzalez, it was in 2012.
In addition to the number of games they've missed, consider the timing of their injuries. Since 2011, Tulowitzki and Gonzalez have missed just 24 games combined in the months of April and May. Generally, their physical breakdowns have occurred in the second half of the season, particularly toward the end of the year. With his 2014 season now over, by year's end Tulowitzki will have played in a total of 34 September games since 2011. Gonzalez, too, will miss all of September 2014 after missing 18 games in September 2013, 10 games in September 2012 (plus the last 3 games played in October of that year), and 14 games in September 2011.
Tulowitzki's and Gonzalez's apparent inability to finish a season in good health should concern any team considering either one as a cornerstone around which to build a championship-caliber team. Imagine, for a moment, trying to make a World Series run with Wilmer Flores filling in for Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop, or Matt den Dekker taking Carlos Gonzalez’s place in left field. A championship team—especially one that relies heavily on its pitching—simply needs its best hitters in the lineup through the month of October. Both players' track records suggest that they have trouble even making it to September.
Of course, making the playoffs in the first place requires winning regular season games and, despite their lost time on the field, Tulowitzki and Gonzalez have contributed a substantial number of wins during these injury-plagued years. Tulowitzki has averaged a strong 4.4 fWAR per season since 2011, while Gonzalez has averaged a solid, but more modest, 2.6 fWAR.
Based on their superb levels of production when healthy, it would be tempting to make a trade and worry about October if and when the time comes. Unfortunately, their injury histories suggest all too clearly that they are simply not built to last a full season. And if an organization’s goal is to play competitive October baseball, it needs players who are actually capable of playing baseball in October.
Moreover, with both players soon entering their 30s, it's hard to imagine them becoming less injury-prone going forward. The fact that either player would cost several high-level prospects and a nice chunk of change (over $50 million still owed to Gonzalez and over $100 million to Tulowitzki) makes the wisdom of such a trade even more questionable.
And then there’s the issue of Coors Field. As is the case with virtually every Rockies player, Tulowitzki and Gonzalez perform far better at high-altitude Coors Field than they do on the road. These stark home/road splits imply that their raw numbers would probably decline upon joining a team that doesn't call Coors Field home.
It is important, however, to note the obvious caveats to drawing conclusions based on home/road splits, particularly those involving Rockies hitters. For example, players generally perform better at home than they do on the road; the Rockies play a disproportionate share of road games in the pitcher-friendly parks of their division-rival Padres, Giants, and Dodgers; and, when on the road, Rockies hitters are forced to adjust to breaking pitches with more movement than those they are accustomed to seeing in their high-altitude home park. That said, one should not ignore how a Rockies hitter performs on the road—especially when trying to project how he would perform for a team that plays 81 home games at pitcher-friendly Citi Field
Tulowitzki’s home/road splits are not terribly concerning. Even if one were to completely disregard his impressive career numbers at Coors Field (.323/.397/.565, 134 wRC+), his production on the road (.274/.349/.469, 118 wRC+) alone would make him an elite offensive shortstop. Plus, in an admittedly small sample size of 58 plate appearances, Tulowitzki has compiled a monstrous .438/.534/.833 slash line at Citi Field. Still, it’s worth remembering that, should the Mets acquire Tulowitzki, they would likely get something closer to the road version of Tulo, rather than the Coors Field version—or certainly the superhuman Citi Field version we’ve seen thus far.
Gonzalez's splits are more of a concern. In Coors Field, Gonzalez’s production (.329/.387/.601, 140 wRC+) surpasses even Tulowitzki's. On the road, however, Gonzalez is a career .258/.314/.437 hitter, with a barely league-average 101 wRC+; in his 43 plate appearances at Citi Field, he has hit a meager .132/.233/.237. Again, this is not to say that Gonzalez would necessarily be a league-average player as a Met, but his performance away from Coors Field should at least be noted.
To be clear, Tulowitzki and Gonzalez are extremely talented players. Any team would be lucky to have either one at the right price. Unfortunately, the cost of acquiring them at this stage of their careers would be several top-tier prospects and a sizable financial commitment. Given their injury histories—and, to a lesser extent, their lower levels of production away from Coors Field—that cost seems too high.
Which is not to suggest that the Mets stand pat during the offseason. After all, they are still in desperate need of upgrades at shortstop and a corner outfield position. The Mets can and should expand their payroll and aggressively test the market for some of their abundant quality prospects. But, to paraphrase Breaking Bad’s Walter White, when it comes to Gonzalez and Tulowitzki, perhaps their best course would be to tread lightly.