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The man who would be Yankees shortstop

Troy Tulowitzki, after battling injuries, tries to revive career
New York Yankees' Troy Tulowitzki runs the bases after hitting a solo home run in the first inning during a spring training baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Feb. 25, 2019, in Tampa. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
New York Yankees' Troy Tulowitzki runs the bases after hitting a solo home run in the first inning during a spring training baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Feb. 25, 2019, in Tampa. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Published Feb. 28, 2019

TAMPA — He hasn’t played in a game since July 2017. He remains the highest paid player on the Toronto Blue Jays and he isn’t even a Toronto Blue Jay. Toronto gave up on him. It was stunning, but the move seemed to make sense.

So, it wasn’t lost on Troy Tulowitzki the other day when he homered on the second pitch he saw in his first spring training game for the Yankees, or that it was off former teammate Marcus Stroman and the Jays, who released him last December, eating most of Tulowitzki’s contract.

“It was sweet,” Tulowitzki said this week. “When you do it off the team that didn’t think you could play anymore, well …”

Batting cleanup Thursday, Tulowitzki hit another homer, a three-run shot, against the Pirates. At 34, the former “Dirtbag,” a Long Beach State teammate of former Rays star Evan Longoria, is fighting for his baseball life, quite well, after two injury-plagued seasons. Tulowitzki has been hurt so much he makes Kevin Kiermaier look like The Iron Horse. But there is something left in that tank — at least there has been this spring.

“I got a lot of work ahead of me,” Tulowitzki said. “It’s two games. I need to be out there more, some more pitches, be on my feet more. I’ll take it. I’m just having fun. It’s a long road for me and I’m just having fun out there.”

The former five-time, five-tool All-Star shortstop for the Colorado Rockies is looking to revive his career at Yankees shortstop, no small stage, just as Longoria will try to rebound in San Francisco.

“When the game is taken from you, you have more of an appreciation for it,” Tulowitzki said. “I hope this is a good place for me, a chance to win. “

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Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius, who underwent offseason Tommy John surgery, might not return before July. Tulowitzki, and what he has left, is the Yankees’ low risk, possibly-high-reward replacement. New York is paying Tulowitzki a league-minimum $550,000 while Toronto remains on the hook for $38 million left on Tulowitzki’s contract. The dude isn’t hurting, except maybe when it comes to pride.

“This guy loves baseball, he’s a baseball junkie,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said this week. “As difficult as these last two years have been for him, now that he’s healthy and feels he has something to prove. That’s a good spot to be in.”

Injuries robbed Tulowitzki. He has played just 66 games the last two seasons, and surgery to remove bone spurs on both heels wiped out his 2018. The .290 career hitter, a slick fielder with a power arm, entered the netherworld of lost careers and bad contracts.

“The true tale of someone’s character, really, is how they bounce back from some of these things,” Tulowitzki said.

The Yankees, while waiting for Mike Trout to become a free agent next season, are pinning their hopes on another reclamation product.

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Tulowitzki has compared notes with his friend Longoria, who struggled with injuries and slumps in his first season in San Francisco. His contract looks like a rock around the Giants’ necks at the moment, just like Tulowitzki’s was in Toronto.

“We’re friends,” Tulowitzki said. “We care about each other. We’ve both been on top of the mountain, we’ve both been on the bottom.”

The Yankees will bring Tulowitzki along slowly. He’ll play every third day this spring. There is no telling what will happen when Gregorius returns, but the best scenario is Tulowitzki finds his game and either sticks with New York or catches on somewhere else.

“I think it’s a really good opportunity,” Boone said. “He’s healthy. Whatever happens going forward, major league baseball and the grind of the season is a physically demanding thing. The big test is when we get into the season and his ability to bounce back as a regular player.”

Thursday, Tulowitzki thought back to where he was a year ago.

“I was probably on a backfield in Dunedin, wondering how am I going to get through the season before I decided I needed to have the surgery.”

Thursday was a new chapter, though it didn’t quite compare to the first one, that homer his first spring at-bat.

“Maybe a little bit less,” Tulowitzki said. “No doubt about it, a little bit less.”

As he said the other day, “The true tale of someone’s character, really, is how they bounce back from some of these things.”

The Yankees and Blue Jays meet 19 times this season.

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Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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