Given the headline I just wrote, there’s no real beating around the bush in this introduction. The Dodgers are reportedly close to re-signing Justin Turner for $64 million over four years. I think he’s worth way more than that, and that the Dodgers just got a huge steal despite shopping in a market bereft of impact talent. So, let’s try to figure out why 29 other MLB teams just let the Dodgers sign Justin Turner on the cheap?
First off, let’s acknowledge the obvious; perhaps Justin Turner just didn’t want to leave, and wasn’t seriously negotiating with anyone else, reducing his leverage and the amount the Dodgers would have to pay him. As one of our commenters pointed out when the news of the deal started to come out, Turner is pretty much the definition of a local.
It is certainly possible that Turner simply wants to live in Los Angeles and go home to his own bed 81 times a year, and decided that he can buy a really nice bed for $64 million. There’s nothing wrong with that choice.
But that’s also all just speculation. We don’t actually know that Turner took a big hometown discount to stay in LA, and even if it was true, it would be interesting (to me, at least) to figure out how much of a discount he took for his geographic preference. So let’s figure out roughly what we think Justin Turner should have gotten as a free agent this winter.
A couple of weeks ago, Corinne Landrey wrote up Turner in relation to Yoenis Cespedes and Edwin Encarnacion. In that piece, she noted that the projections actually rate Turner as the best player available this winter, and that while Cespedes has an age advantage, it’s less than a year’s difference, so our expectations of their future value shouldn’t be all that different. And Cespedes just got $110 million over four years, 70 percent more than Turner’s reported deal, even though it’s the same length.
But Cespedes is a dynamic slugger, and we know teams pay a lot more for home runs than they do for doubles and contact. Turner has been an excellent hitter the last three years, but he’s still a guy who has hit double digit home runs in a season just twice in his career. His skillset is line drives and lots of them, but that doesn’t pay like dingers do, so we shouldn’t be too surprised that Cespedes got a good bit more than Turner.
Cespedes, of course, isn’t the only free agent hitter who has signed this year, though, and helpfully, Dexter Fowler just gave us another comparison point. Fowler, like Turner, is a good hitter despite not launching a ton of home runs. He gets his offensive value from walks, doubles, and baserunning, so like Turner, he’s the kind of good hitter that the market usually discounts a bit. Again, he’s a little younger, so it’s not a perfect comparison, but he’s also starting from a significantly lower baseline; here are Turner and Fowler’s numbers over the last three years.
Turner’s lower strikeout rate and additional power make him a substantially better hitter, and while Fowler plays an up the middle position while Turner plays a corner, the data suggests that Turner has been the more valuable fielder, given his better performance at third base than Fowler has had in center field. If you buy into the idea that Fowler’s defensive ratings were dragged down due to poor positioning prior to last year, the gap shrinks, but it’s probably impossible to get to a point where you could make a case that Fowler is a better player than Turner.
And Fowler just got $85 million over five years, effectively getting an extra year and an extra million per season over what Turner is going to get from LA.
Or, you know, we could look at the Ian Desmond contract. Desmond got $70 million over five years from Colorado, and here, there’s just no real argument for Desmond, especially considering Colorado says they signed him to play first base. If you’re in the market for a right-handed corner infielder, there’s just no way you prefer Desmond and his 99 wRC+ over the last three years to Turner and his 138 wRC+ over the same period. Both players were made a Qualifying Offer, so there’s no draft pick difference to break down here. Desmond does offer more positional flexibility, but the Rockies already have players at the spots that he’s most valuable at, and the gap in offense between the two is substantial.
It’s certainly an assumption, since we don’t really know what the Rockies were thinking, but you’d have to imagine that if they could have given Turner $64 million instead of giving Desmond $70 million, they would have done so. There doesn’t seem to be any real rational reason that I can see for the market valuing Desmond over Turner, and once you factor in that the Rockies say they signed Desmond to play a position Turner could also have played, this shouldn’t even really be all that close.
So, realistically, given the Cespedes/Fowler/Desmond signings, it feels like Turner should have gotten something like $90 to $100 million in this market. And as Craig Edwards showed in his piece on Turner in November, that’s pretty much what we should expect him to be worth based on recent comparable players.
Instead, Turner is getting the same contract as Mark Melancon. Melancon’s a really nice reliever, and the reliever market is obviously a different animal than the market for other players, but the idea that he’s as valuable as Turner, even after accounting for how bullpens are used in the postseason, is indefensible. This isn’t a knock on Melancon; it’s just that Turner is really freaking good.
Yes, there are a lot of right-handed sluggers on the market this winter, and there weren’t a lot of teams out there looking for third baseman. But there are enough teams looking for good hitters that it seems like Turner should have gotten at least more than Desmond, and probably more than Fowler. I guessed 4/$82M before the off-season began, but given that the new CBA incentivizes lowering AAV for teams near the CBT threshold, 5/$90M, or something like that, seems like it should have been within reach. That’s the Fowler deal, plus an extra $1 million per year to account for the fact that he’s better than Fowler.
Instead, Turner is headed back to Los Angeles for the Melancon deal. Whether it was because the market still didn’t buy his going-on-three-years-now breakout or because he simply wanted to stay in LA, the Dodgers got a massive bargain. And so now, they get to keep one of the best third baseman in baseball at a price that buys you something like an average player. For the Dodgers, this is basically the best outcome possible.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.