The reigning World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers have little to worry about this offseason. Justin Turner‘s free agency is their most significant question with Mookie Betts signed up long-term and their core under control through next season.
Turner, who distracted from the Dodgers’ title celebrations by breaking COVID-19 protocols, is symbolic of how the Dodgers have sustained greatness. He was a player taken off the scrapheap, a discarded hitter by the Orioles and Mets, a player the Dodgers have turned into an All-Star hitter.
Turner’s idiocy in returning to the field after a positive test probably won’t impact his free agency. It was a wildly selfish thing to do, but how often does morality impact baseball decisions? Roberto Osuna, Aroldis Chapman and countless others have not had their careers harmed. If you’re good enough, nothing else matters. That is likely to be the case with Turner, too.
A return to the Dodgers seems the most likely outcome for Turner as a free agent. There has been no suggestion his teammates don’t want him back after the events following Game 6 of the World Series.
Turner had another big year in the shortened 2020 season. His results were good (.860 OPS). The underlying numbers were even better – Turner ranked in the 95th percentile in xwOBA. He continues to walk and avoid strikeouts with a 14.9% strikeout rate and 10.3% walk rate. Turner heading into his age-36 season is still a top-level MLB hitter.
The concern about committing long-term lies elsewhere. Turner was 11th percentile in infield outs above average, his 84% success rate was the lowest of his career (since such data has been available). His speed has dropped off too, which is often an indicator of decline elsewhere. The 25.4 ft/s of 2020 is the lowest mark of his career, and makes it consecutive years slowing down. While that’s to be expected, it’s a warning flag for any team considering Turner in free agency.
Turner’s free agency options
Any team looking to sign Turner, including the Dodgers, will want to have him as their DH for the majority of their games. The universal DH has not been confirmed yet. If, or when, the DH is announced for the National League, plenty of teams will look at Turner as an option. He improves the line-up for every NL team.
Aware that this could be his last significant payday, Turner may prioritise contract length. While he can still play a bit of third in 2021, committing anything more than one season could mean locking him in at DH. That takes away flexibility that managers value so highly.
The Dodgers have already been rumoured to have trade interest in Francisco Lindor. They will inevitably be linked to all the high-profile infield free agents next offseason. Turner’s salary, and his presence on the roster, make both pursuits trickier. A trade for Lindor is hard to justify, but the Dodgers will be eyeing up Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Javier Baez and Lindor as free agents next winter.
Corey Seager is in the mix too, though it would be no surprise to see him land a long-term extension in Los Angeles soon. Could the Dodgers extend Seager and move for one of the other All-Star shortstops? Giving Turner anything longer than one season makes such a scenario very unlikely. A one-year, high value deal for Turner is what makes most sense for the Dodgers – could he be tempted into a one-year pact if the Dodgers offered $18 million?
Trading away pieces to get Lindor now would be a rushed, reckless move for the Dodgers. They are set up to contend long-term. Pay Turner for 2021, and spend big on Lindor, Correa, Story or Baez, and the Dodgers are stacked deep into the next decade. It’s expensive, but it’s a foundation for a dynasty. Committing to Turner beyond next season is, in a strange way, a potential window-shortening move.
The Dodgers will be desperate to defend their crown. Turner will make them better in 2021. For a team with so much peak and pre-peak talent, though, they can afford to let Turner walk if it gives them a chance to retain Seager and sign Lindor, Story, Baez or Correa. Going beyond one year for Turner is not a risk worth taking given his inevitable decline.