MLB

MLB free agency: If Justin Turner doesn’t re-sign with the Dodgers, where could he land?

Spring training is about a week away now and MLB teams are in a frenzy to finalize their rosters. Trevor Bauer and Marcell Ozuna, the top two available free agents, agreed to contracts with the Dodgers and Braves within recent days, respectively. All six of the winter’s top free agents are accounted for, though 22 of our top 60 free agents remain unsigned.

Our top available unsigned free agent is longtime Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner. Turner, 36, has seen his production slip ever so slightly the last two years, and injuries limited him to 410 of 546 possible games from 2017-20, or 75 percent. That said, he remains a well-above-average hitter and a postseason force with a reputation for being a clubhouse leader. Turner is still someone a contender would want in the batter’s box in a big moment.

A return to the Dodgers has felt fait accompli since the outset of the offseason, but it hasn’t happened yet, and there are more and more rumblings about non-Dodgers teams trying to sign Turner with each passing day. It’s hard to imagine his free agency will drag on much longer. Spring training is approaching and players don’t like getting a late start on their preparation.

With that in mind, here’s a look at Turner’s market, and the best possible landing spots for him outside Chavez Ravine.

The best fit: Dodgers

It’s such an obvious and perfect fit, and it’s weird it a reunion hasn’t happened yet. I suppose now that the Dodgers have signed Bauer and blown by the $210 million luxury-tax threshold, they could pivot to Turner and bring him back into the fold. Once you’re over the luxury-tax threshold, you might as well keep going over. The benefits of staying under the threshold are gone.

The Dodgers have internal third base options. They could put Edwin Rios at the hot corner, or Matt Beaty, or even Chris Taylor. Might as well throw Gavin Lux into the mix too. Beaty, Rios, and Lux are all left-handed hitters though, and Taylor fits better at second base. Turner brings a quality righty bat and would balance the lefty-heavy lineup, plus he’s a clubhouse leader. Go somewhere else and he’s just a mercenary. With the Dodgers, he’s part of the core. It works for the team and the player.

The top alternative: Brewers

Late last week the Brewers signed second baseman Kolten Wong to a two-year deal, pushing incumbent second baseman Keston Hiura to first. Wong will definitely improve the team’s defense and he will improve their offense as well, even though he’s never been a big-time offensive producer. It’s just that Milwaukee’s infield was dreadful in 2020:

  • Batting average: .222 (28th in MLB)
  • On-base percentage: .302 (27th in MLB)
  • Slugging percentage: .384 (24th in MLB)

Projected third baseman Luis Urias is a former top prospect and a career .226/.315/.320 hitter in the big leagues, so if the Brewers are going to add another infield bat, third base is the place to do it. Urias is only 23 and you don’t want to bury him, so Milwaukee could turn him into a “10th man” who sees regular action at the three non-first base infield positions.

Keep in mind the Brewers’ current situation. The NL Central is very winnable, Christian Yelich is in his prime, and Josh Hader has not yet priced himself out of town. This might be their last good opportunity to win with this core and Turner would a) improve their 2021 outlook considerably, and b) not require a big-money long-term deal. It’s fit. It fits so well.

For what it’s worth, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal says the Brewers “remain on the periphery” of the Turner market after the Wong signing. That sounds like standard “we’ll take him if his price drops but we don’t expect to sign him” language. We’ll see.

The other good alternative: Nationals

The Nationals have gone all-in on bounce-back candidates this offseason. They signed Kyle Schwarber to play left field, traded for Josh Bell to play first base, and signed Jon Lester to serve as the fourth starter. Turner does not fit the bounce-back candidate mold (neither did new closer Brad Hand) but he would fill an obvious need at the hot corner. Consider the possible lineup:

  1. SS Trea Turner
  2. RF Juan Soto
  3. 3B Justin Turner
  4. LF Kyle Schwarber
  5. 1B Josh Bell
  6. 2B Starlin Castro
  7. C Yan Gomes
  8. CF Victor Robles
  9. Pitcher’s spot

Carter Kieboom is a very good prospect but he’s really struggled in limited MLB time, and the Nationals presumably feel urgency to win right now. Max Scherzer is entering the final year of his contract, (Trea) Turner is two years away from free agency, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin have whatever is left of their peaks, so on and so forth.

(Justin) Turner is a significant upgrade over Kieboom and besides, it’s not Turner or Kieboom. It’s Turner and Kieboom. Washington can find at-bats for Kieboom should his play warrant them, plus it’s unlikely the club will skate through the season injury free. The Nationals are a mostly veteran team trying to win one more title with this core. Turner would improve their chances considerably.

It could still work: Braves

The Braves say they will stick with Austin Riley at third base in 2021 and I get it. He has huge power and cut his strikeout rate from a ghastly 36.4 percent in 2019 to a league average-ish 23.8 percent in 2020.  Riley also chased fewer pitches out of the zone (34.7 percent to 30.2 percent) and made more contact on pitches in the zone (73.5 percent to 82.3 percent). Positive trends abound.

I mean, when you have a soon-to-be 24-year-old who can do this to a baseball, you make room for him in the lineup.

Why sign Turner then? Because he’s better than Riley and would improve Atlanta’s chances of winning a World Series in 2021. It’s that simple. The Braves don’t have to banish Riley to Triple-A, of course. They could find at-bats for him at third base and in the outfield during the season, plus use him to fill in for the inevitable injuries. There’s no such thing as too many good players.

I admit the Braves signing Turner was a better idea before the Braves re-signed Ozuna. The universal DH is (probably) not happening, so Ozuna will have to play left field, taking away a possible landing spot for Riley. Should MLB come to its sense and approve the universal DH for 2021, the Braves should be all over Turner.

It was a better idea 10 days ago: Blue Jays

The Marcus Semien signing probably takes the Blue Jays out of the running for Turner. There’s no such thing as too many good players, so they could still bring him aboard, but Semien pushes Cavan Biggio to third base, and signing Turner would push Biggio to the outfield and either Teoscar Hernandez or Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to the bench. That’s not ideal.

Toronto was reportedly in the mix for Turner prior to the Semien signing and the X-factor here is a trade. The Blue Jays could sign Turner, put Biggio in the outfield, then use Hernandez or Gurriel as a trade chip to get a pitcher. Cleveland, the Cardinals, and the White Sox immediately jump to mind as teams that could use an outfield bat. Toronto could sign Turner and make it work, even without a trade. It seems very unlikely after Semien though.

Don’t sleep on: Rays

Depending who you ask, the Rays either were or were not interested in Ozuna before he returned to the Braves. Even if they had interest, it’s extremely unlikely Tampa would have spent what was necessary to sign him. They don’t swim in that end of the free-agent pool. Turner won’t come cheap, but he won’t require a long-term deal. Consider him the Charlie Morton of position players.

As for the lineup fit, the Rays would make it work. I have no doubt about that. Even with Joey Wendle and Yandy Diaz and Mike Brosseau penciled in for third base reps, the Rays could move them to other positions, and get Turner into the lineup at third base or DH on an everyday basis. They badly need another hitter — Tampa was 12th in runs per game last year and if Randy Arozarena didn’t do something amazing, they didn’t score in the postseason — and Turner would fill a clear need.



 

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