SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The great shortstops are gone. Nearly 20 years after Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter began redefining the position, baseball's best players no longer are in the middle of the diamond.
"It's a lot harder to get a player like Jeter than people think," said Barry Larkin, the first 30-home run, 30-stolen base shortstop and the last shortstop inducted into the Hall of Fame. "You realize how special these players are."
It wasn't too long ago when shortstops were on magazine covers. Cal Ripken Jr. began the trend of good-fielding, middle-of-the-order sluggers. Miguel Tejada and Rodriguez won American League MVP awards in 2002 and 2003. Jimmy Rollins claimed the National League's top honor in 2007.
There have been no shortstop MVPs since. Shortstop has become just another position of solid players, not transcendent stars.
This is my defense of Troy Tulowitzki.
MLB Network's Shredder, which takes into account a battery of statistics with "no human bias," ranks Tulo as baseball's top shortstop, ahead of the Blue Jays' Jose Reyes and the Dodgers' Hanley Ramirez.
Tulo was an easy choice. A year ago, he had 52 extra-base hits while committing only eight errors in 570 chances.
And yet I have never covered another star player so polarizing to fans. Rockies fans don't seem to like Tulo's attitude; they think he's too arrogant and aloof in public and they smart over his injuries submarining their fantasy league teams.
If you don't like the person, that's your prerogative. I just can't fathom why you don't like the player. Tulo is among the last of an endangered species: the superstar shortstop. (Pump the brakes on Andrelton Simmons, a breathtaking fielder, until he has an on-base percentage over .300 for a full season.)
Tulowitzki is one of only six shortstops with four 25-homer seasons, joining Ripken (eight), A-Rod (seven), Ernie Banks (seven), Tejada (six) and Garciaparra (four). Also, Tulo has won two Gold Gloves.
Yes, he gets hurt. It leaves the Rockies sick. I get it. But his departure via trade, if and when that happens, will create a chilling void. My opinion? No. Ask Larkin.
"It bothers me that players in Colorado don't get the respect that they should. If Tulo played in New York, he would be A-Rod minus the steroids and PEDs," said Larkin, an MLB analyst for ESPN. "I really believe they will appreciate him more when he's gone and somebody takes over full time. They will be saying 'Where's Tulo?' "
Tulowitzki understands criticism of his health. He knows winning is a panacea. His goal is to recreate the magic of 2007 and 2009. He changed everything about the shortstop position for the Rockies, who had good players at that position but never an all-star until he arrived. When he's on the field, the Rockies have a mismatch every game.
This wouldn't have been the case 15 years ago when every team seemed to have a shortstop straight out of central casting. The lack of stars there now likely is cyclical, as is most everything in the sport.
"I still have Reds fans ask me if I can still play, and their team has a good one in Zack Cozart," said Larkin, 49. "It's not easy to do it from both sides of the ball from that position, and I think you are seeing that as time goes on."