Justin Turner Is a Return to Normalcy in Boston’s Turbulent Offseason

© Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

During the offseason, teams largely split into three groups. The first are the big spenders, teams that are aware of the holes on their roster and make aggressive efforts to patch them. Next are the more thrifty clubs, ones who dedicate themselves to marginal upgrades – signing a reliever here, a fourth outfielder there, often single-handedly dictating the market for the middle tier of free agents and below. Last are the window shoppers, who for some reason whiff on every single free agent despite having “tried their best.” That’s generally ownership-speak for “I don’t really wanna spend,” but I digress. The point is, teams are somewhat predictable, and the moves they make are indicative of their internal situation.

This offseason, the Red Sox have defied such categorization. As a big market team, it seemed they would focus on retaining their star shortstop (or at least replacing him with a similarly talented infielder) and bolstering their rotation. One month later, Xander Bogaerts is a San Diego Padre, and Boston has yet to add a starting pitcher; Nathan Eovaldi, who rejected a qualifying offer, remains in free agency limbo. These aren’t omissions typical of a team of their stature, which calls into question the Red Sox’s goals for next season and beyond.

Are they planning on tearing it down? That doesn’t seem likely, given that they signed Chris Martin and Kenley Jansen to two-year contracts. So are they a thrifty spender, intent on being neither a contender nor an intentionally terrible mess? Probably not, because they signed Masataka Yoshida to a deal that blew even the most optimistic projections out of the water. It’s confusing indeed. If I had to place the Red Sox into an offseason bucket, it’d be the throw-anything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks group. Population: one.

But hold on! The Red Sox have once again gone off script, this time by signing a free agent who… makes perfect sense. Justin Turner is headed to Boston, as first reported by Joon Lee this weekend. Later, Ken Rosenthal revealed the details: The deal is for two years and $21.7 million, but only if Turner exercises a player option for 2024. If he doesn’t, he’ll receive $15 million. There are also performance bonuses for 2023 based on how many plate appearances he accumulates, capping out at $1 million.

The logic behind this is simple. J.D. Martinez’s recent departure left the Red Sox without, well, a designated designated hitter. They also didn’t have many options at first base, where Turner is expected to contribute as well. The 38-year-old third baseman may not be the adroit defender he once was, but his bat, albeit in a diminished state, is still useful. He could also help give Rafael Devers time off from third base, and any sort of positional flexibility is good. And if there’s anything Moneyball taught us, it’s that while playing first is incredibly hard, there’s nothing offseason reps and a confidence boost can’t handle.

Comparisons between Martinez and Turner are unavoidable. It’s tempting to assert that one represents an upgrade or a downgrade over the other, but I don’t think an apples-to-apples approach is warranted here. The two are similar in terms of their age and what role they’ll play for their new teams, just not offensive profiles. Martinez is the prototypical slugger – he has the edge in exit velocity, but makes contact less frequently. Meanwhile, Turner compensates for his good but not great power by putting the ball in play and chasing fewer pitches outside the zone. It’s unclear which approach will hold up better going forward. The rapid declines of Albert Pujols and Chris Davis, I think, have given baseball fans the impression that fly ball mashers succumb faster to Father Time. But contact rate also declines rapidly with age, and so does chase rate. In general, though, it makes sense to peg Martinez and Turner for roughly the same degree of production.

If anything, Turner should lean harder into his line drive tendencies. For Turner, the biggest effect of his age doesn’t show up in traditional box scores, or even on this site: He’s lost is a massive amount of exit velocity on his fly balls. A fly ball with enough strength behind it is a home run; a fly ball with not quite enough strength behind it is an easy out. And over the years, Turner has lost more and more of that crucial gusto. To wit, when he hit a line drive last season, he averaged a monstrous 393 wRC+. But that number quickly drops to 83 on fly balls, then to a mere 34 on groundballs (he’s as slow as molasses, you see). That line drives are not only Turner’s bread and butter, but also his only food source, explains his extended slump in the first half of 2022:

It’s about as clear of a correlation as you’ll ever see. When Turner hit far more fly balls and groundballs than line drives, he looked like a goner, and Dodgers fans were understandably upset about it. But after rediscovering his swing sometime in July, a revitalized Turner started absolutely destroying baseballs. There’s a way for Turner to look like his prime self, and there’s only one way for Turner to look like his prime self. That’s either a pleasant or uncomfortable realization, depending on your perspective: Imparting just enough backspin to a ball is what Turner does best, but it’s also super difficult and not always reliable. At the very least, Fenway Park has long been an excellent place for righty hitters to produce doubles. In choosing to leave the Dodgers, Turner does find himself in a more favorable offensive environment. Whether he can leverage it is another matter.

From a fan’s perspective, a reunion with his longtime team would have been ideal. It’s with the Dodgers that Turner found his signature uppercut stroke, and it’s with the Dodgers that he left a string of iconic moments, including a walk-off homer in Game 2 of the 2017 NLCS. His outstretched arms are now embedded in Dodger history, as is his ginger mane. Turner was one of the last vestiges of a bygone era of Dodger baseball; with his departure, only Clayton Kershaw remains as definitive proof of its existence. This winter, rookie players such as James Outman and Miguel Vargas will populate the roster, providing different looks and different talents. It’s the beginning of something new. And while Turner could have been a part of it, he would have eventually passed his torch one way or another.

The Red Sox had a stronger motivation to pursue Turner, and that might have been the difference-maker. Despite landing on a lower AAV than what the public estimated, Turner can choose to play major league baseball until 2024, with his time on the field more or less guaranteed. He’s not an impact signing, but he’s nonetheless a great fit for the Red Sox. Based on their confusing, disappointing, and much-discussed offseason, it’s easy to lump this signing in with everything else: a pile of missed opportunities and seemingly inexplicable decisions. But Turner shouldn’t be a punchline to jokes about Boston’s ineptitude. He remains a good hitter despite his elder status and should help the Red Sox in meaningful ways. In a vacuum, there’s virtually nothing to dislike about his arrival. As they say: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

The subtitle says it is a return to normalcy, but I don’t think that’s it. Bloom has emphasized short term deals for since he took over. This is right in line with his philosophy; constant roster turnover of guys on short term deals to keep from getting bogged down with bad contracts while still keeping the team from being obviously bad. This is absolutely in line with throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I agree, and yet don’t really see a problem with it, this offseason. The AL East is a juggernaut. Boston could spend their way into a wild-card, or…luck their way into a wild-card. They still have little pitching, even if they re-sign Eovaldi.

People dump on Bloom for the Rays-like approach, but I don’t see how that is a bad idea for 2023.

The real bad idea was the Betts trade, but that’s in the past. I think Bogaerts gets exposed by the lack of shift, so it made sense for him to walk, especially with Mayer in the wings and Story around. So Turner is the DH? I worry they’ll trade Devers and put Turner at third.

Also, I don’t get why multiple Fangraphs writers seem to forget that Tristan Casas exists.