Dodgers free agents, Part I: Trea Turner is in driver’s seat

Editor’s note: This is the Tuesday, Nov. 8 edition of the Inside the Dodgers newsletter from reporter J.P. Hoornstra. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

A quarter-century ago, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada collectively transformed the shortstop position into the domain of power hitters. Before that quartet hit the scene, the rational notion of sacrificing power from one of your corner infield positions in exchange for power at shortstop belonged to the Baltimore Orioles and few others. Shortstop was the providence of diminutive glovemen. It was primarily and secondarily a defensive position.

The last five years have changed the position even more. Today’s shortstop crop has done something even Jeter, Garciaparra, Rodriguez and Tejada did not. They turned shortstop into an almost-average offensive position league-wide.

Glove-first starting shortstops comprise a select minority. Nine shortstops hit 20 or more home runs in 2022. Another, Oneil Cruz, fell just shy because he spent half the season at Triple-A. The 2022 Dodgers were no exception to this trend. They got 42 homers and 169 RBIs combined from their primary shortstop and primary third baseman. That’s quite good. When you frame his offensive contributions that way, Trea Turner makes Max Muncy’s descent into season-long mediocrity almost forgettable.

Turner is a free agent now. His employer in 2023 and beyond is uncertain. Power might not have been Turner’s calling card during his 212 games as a Dodger, but it is useful to start framing this tool as perhaps his most important as a baseball player. The reason is simple. Here are Turner’s stolen-base totals in every non-pandemic season he has played:

2017: 46

2018: 43

2019: 35

2021: 32

2022: 27

The trend line is clear. As intoxicating as Turner’s speed is for fans, he might not be much of a stolen-base threat by the time his next contract is up. It isn’t news that we get slower as we age, and that players whose game is built around speed typically age worse than average. That’s why it’s significant to see how Turner, 29, has managed to turn up his power output. Here are his home run totals from the same years:

2017: 11

2018: 19

2019: 19

2021: 28

2022: 21

If you can accept 2022 as a humidor-induced blip, Turner’s best selling point might be that he’ll give his next team a slugger with above-average bat-to-ball skills who can run a little, and move to center field or second base if needed. These are pretty strong selling points. In a free agent shortstop class that includes Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson – who finally came into his power stroke this season – Turner has a unique resume.

The question is, is it the kind of resume the Dodgers are likely to spend silly money on? They famously do not spend silly money often, but every offseason is its own beast. Even if they exercise the contract option on Justin Turner, the Dodgers will have committed $98.6 million in guaranteed salary to six players (Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Chris Taylor and Muncy are the others). For a team whose payroll ran almost three times that amount in 2022, that’s a modest commitment that should leave room to spend. With that in mind, let’s look at the for and against arguments that are likely to run through the Dodgers’ front office in the days to come:

Why Turner stays a Dodger

No player on the Dodgers’ current roster offers a suitable substitute for Turner’s entire skill set. Speedy second baseman Gavin Lux might offer a similar ability to hit for average. Taylor is a 20-homer hitter when his swing is right. Prospect Jacob Amaya, 24, debuted at Triple-A in 2022 and is reputedly slick with the glove. All three can play shortstop. I don’t know exactly what the Dodgers’ R&D department is up to at any given moment, but genetically engineering the best skills of three human baseball players into one super-shortstop is (probably) not within their grasp.

If turning to the free-agent market is the plan (it’s either that or a trade, given the state of the Dodgers’ depth chart at shortstop) where should the Dodgers turn? There is a tendency, though not universal, to favor the devil you know over the devil you don’t. For all the merits of Correa, Bogaerts and Swanson, Turner has had more than a year to bond with the players and coaches in Los Angeles. A Florida native, Turner expressed a soft preference for the East Coast in a way that suggests the right amount of money can keep him in Los Angeles.

Turner checks a lot of boxes the Dodgers prioritize from their position players. Bat-to-ball skills. Defensive versatility. An ability to hit for power. Elite shortstops are rarely of the “slow and plodding” variety,  but the Dodgers under Andrew Friedman have given preference to free agents who move athletically and play baseball, as opposed to those who hit well and do little else on the field. Turner gives you a bit of everything now, with the potential to offset his gradual loss of speed with a gain in power.

I’ll note here that the new rules taking effect in 2023 were largely designed to favor base stealing. That could turn Turner’s market from a mere bonanza into a frenzy; it’s hard to say exactly how the market will react to the potential for more base-stealing in the future. The Dodgers should be considered the prohibitive favorites in any bidding war that doesn’t also involve the New York Yankees or the New York Mets, and neither team faces a pressing need at shortstop like the Dodgers would if Turner departed. A frenzy might not be the worst thing if you want Turner back.

Why Turner leaves

I could use this section to compare Turner, Bogaerts, Swanson and Correa. I won’t, but it would be a fun exercise, and that’s the point. Separating the top shortstops in this market is largely a matter of preference. The Dodgers might consider re-signing Turner as their Plan A and be just as comfortable pivoting to their Plan B. I couldn’t tell you today in which order the Dodgers’ front office would rank the four players. They’re all very talented.

Correa gave an interview to MLB Network recently that practically sounded a homing signal directly aimed at Chavez Ravine. He comes with the stigma of having participated in the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal, but he’s also the kind of hitter any contending team would covet. Could the Dodgers’ front office and players overlook the stigma and accept Correa as a teammate? That’s the most unusual wrinkle hanging over Turner’s situation. If the answer is “no,” there might not be a Plan D – only Plans B and C. That’s important to note.

Of course, the Dodgers’ plans are rarely linear. That’s by design. Turner’s versatility is not an asset if he only plays shortstop, and the Dodgers might prefer to bring him back as a hybrid shortstop/second baseman/center fielder. This seems like an especially desirable outcome if center fielder Cody Bellinger is allowed to become a free agent after his abysmal offensive season. But Turner might not want to be a “slash.” If he has some assurance of remaining at shortstop for a full season or six, that might tip the scales in favor of a team offering a similar contract in years and dollars.

Let’s say Bellinger comes back, or the Dodgers’ front office has another center fielder in mind for 2023. Unless they prefer another shortstop more than Turner, it seems only Turner’s desire to play closer to home stands in the way of a reunion. The Dodgers have the money. They have the need at shortstop. They’ve had a pretty good shortstop the last year and a half, and there aren’t many opportunities to upgrade the position internally or externally.

Turner said at the beginning of the 2022 season that he was willing to negotiate an extension in-season. That didn’t happen, so it’s possible there’s been a gap between the two camps for some time now. Unless Turner has a specific desire to re-sign quickly, I can easily envision a situation in which he, Bogaerts, Correa, and Swanson let teams outbid each other for as long as possible. The Dodgers and Turner might have a good four months or so to bridge their numbers gap. If you’re a fan of baseball’s offseason hot stove, it doesn’t get much better than this.

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