Dodgers free agents, Part V: Justin Turner’s reunion tour feels less inevitable this time

Editor’s note: This is the Friday, Aug. 14 edition of the Inside the Dodgers newsletter from reporter J.P. Hoornstra. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

Something about Justin Turner’s first two trips through free agency felt like a trip to the dentist’s office. You walk through the door, you sign in, the hygienist sees you and takes a look around your mouth and, eventually, you see an actual dentist. You’re not sure how long it all will take ― probably longer than you’d like ― but you know where it will end up.

Justin Turner in a Dodgers uniform feels as inevitable as a waterpik to the gums. For most of this past season, however, the winter of 2022-23 seemed destined to be different. Turner was slashing .216/.287/.344 on June 27. He dropped to seventh in the batting order for the first time since 2014. Turner turned it around, and over his final 60 games he slashed .349/.420/.546 ― changing the trajectory of his season and the prospects for his next contract.

The reigning Roberto Clemente award winner has a well-documented bond with the Dodgers organization that won’t be eviscerated by, say, a one-year contract with the Royals to finish his career. It would just be weird. When the Dodgers declined their $16 million option to bring Turner back in 2023, the weird ending became a distinct possibility Thursday.

Where does that leave Turner’s options?

Why Turner will return

Assuming his final 60 games of 2022 were no fluke, Turner can be an everyday player in 2022. In the right lineup, he could even be a middle-of-the-order hitter. His long stated preference is to return to the Dodgers, and in the span of a week the Dodgers have lost not one but two middle-of-the-order hitters (named Turner) to free agency. They could use at least one back.

Justin Turner is turning 38 in a couple weeks, and the Dodgers rarely employ hitters that old. Chase Utley played his final game in 2018 at age 39. Albert Pujols finished last season at 41. In the Andrew Friedman era, that’s the list. But is this really a concern?

Turner’s aging curve is atypical. He had 4 fWAR as a major league player by the age of 30. He’s accumulated more than 30 fWAR since. Nelson Cruz (7 fWAR by age 30, 34 after age 30), David Ortiz (15 fWAR by age 30, 36 after) and Edgar Martinez (17.5 fWAR by age 30, 48 after) are the poster boys for late-career flourishes. Each of them did so with the benefit of full-time DHing, which wasn’t an option for Turner before 2022. Max Muncy started 80 games at third base this season, and Turner started 66. Turner actually started fewer games as a designated hitter (61) this year, but 2023 might well see that number go up. There isn’t much precedent for the career Turner has fashioned for himself. Among the few players who have followed a similar trajectory, their transition to DHing started much earlier. The most remarkable aspect of Turner’s career is how much late success he’s enjoyed while DHing so little.

Perhaps the transition away from playing the field regularly contributed to Turner’s slow start to the year. If that’s the case, the Dodgers have now seen Turner make the transition successfully. It’s doubtful he can replicate his 60-game streak over a full season; no one else has slashed .349/.420/.546 or better in a non-pandemic year since Joe Mauer in 2009. Still, the Dodgers would be doing more than bringing back their symbolic captain by re-signing Turner. They would be bringing back a good hitter with a short and long track record of success.

Would a one-year contract for less money than the value of his option ($16 million) be enough to get Turner to re-sign? If not, would the Dodgers be willing to tack on a second year, or at least an option year for 2024, in a new contract? Turner has taken pay cuts to stay in L.A. (and team option years) before. If you think he returns in 2023, that’s your reason for hope.

Why Turner leaves

A common sign of age-induced decline in bat speed is a hitter’s ability to catch up to the fastest fastballs he sees. Check out how Turner fared against pitches 95 mph and faster during his torrid 60-game streak compared to the other Dodger hitters during that span. His .227 expected batting average and .368 expected slugging percentage are remarkable considering he struck out so infrequently (13.2 percent) on such pitches. If anything, it’s odd opposing pitchers didn’t pepper him with more speed, especially with two strikes ― a somewhat unexploited weakness.

This is the kind of thing that could give an executive pause as teams try to project how the next year or two might go for Turner. Father Time didn’t come for Turner in 2022, but Father Time is famously undefeated. If Turner’s ceiling is somewhere below peak Joe Mauer, we’ve seen how low his floor might drop. What if Turner reverts to his pre-June 28 form in 2023? A designated hitter type with a .216/.287/.344 slash line is hard to roster on a contending team, to say nothing of having him in the middle of the batting order.

For a bad-to-mediocre team short on veterans with playoff experience ― the kind that would love to have Justin Turner in the clubhouse, whether or not his on-field performance alone justifies his contract ― accepting that risk isn’t nearly as tough a pill to swallow. For the Dodgers? How much value does Turner’s leadership carry in a room with Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, Clayton Kershaw and potentially other veterans?

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The Dodgers have leaders besides Turner. They have a couple third basemen on their 40-man roster (Muncy, Edwin Rios) who can bridge the gap to Miguel Vargas if needed. They can rotate guys in and out of the DH spot, or simply sign a younger and better DH than Turner. Jose Abreu, JD Martinez, Trey Mancini and others are available in free agency, though the front office would certainly consider acquiring any position player whose bat holds more promise than Turner’s if they are ready to move on.

I doubt that’s their Plan A, though I have no special insight at the moment. Now that Turner’s option has been declined, projections and dollars per WAR become more important to the analysis. The cold, unemotional look at Turner’s free agent case becomes more pertinent. Suddenly a breakup seems more possible ― not a slam dunk, but one would understand the logic behind it.

Sentimentally, a reunion between Turner and the Dodgers is easy to root for. Practically, there is some risk involved in bringing him back to a team that won 111 games last season and could lose one key bat (Trea Turner) to free agency. The details of that risk assessment could hold the key to Justin Turner’s future in a Dodger uniform.

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