Justin Turner, Massive Bargain

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.

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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 and Fowler, 2014-2016
Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Off Def WAR
Justin Turner 1383 0.296 0.364 0.492 0.368 138 61.9 17.1 12.8
Dexter Fowler 1746 0.266 0.369 0.419 0.348 121 52.4 -17.3 9.5

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.

We hoped you liked reading Justin Turner, Massive Bargain by Dave Cameron!

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John Autin
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Member
John Autin

It does seem well below his market rate.
Besides the obvious possibilities — hometown discount, bad agent — perhaps Turner values knowing that he’ll never be seen as overpaid?
(No, I don’t really buy that, either….)

Chip Locke
Member
Chip Locke

That would be a terrible bargaining chip. “Just don’t make me seem overpaid, boss.”

alpha309
Member
alpha309

I am more inclined to assume it was just a bad year in the market for him. There were limited teams that were contenders that could have used his services, and the ones that could have, budget constraints probably massively impacted their decisions. Below are the other reasonable teams that would have tried to land him most of the time.

BOS – Probably budget
BAL – Machado
CLE – Ramirez and budget
DET – selling
HOU – Bregman/Gurriel
KC – Moustakis and budget
SEA – Seager
TEX – Beltre
TOR – Donaldson
CHC – Bryant
COL – Arrenado
MIA – insane owner
NYM – Budget issues after Cespedes
PIT – Budget
SF – Made sense
STL – Made more sense to get 1B
WAS – could have used him.

Everyone else is either garbage, or they typically don’t spend. MIA, SF, STL, and WAS were really the only other teams that probably have the means and the need for Turner, but there were reasons they wouldn’t have. WAS is going more after high end bullpen arms with the money they have left. STL would have upgraded by getting him, but it makes more sense to shuffle their current infield after getting a 1B, SF could have really targeted him, but they are always toeing the Lux tax, and they spent a lot of their available money on a closer. And finally, do we really know what Loria is thinking down in Miami?

Realistically there were not many options for him, which probably drove his market into the ground. Unless he really felt the need to sign with a rebuilding team that has no realistic shot at the playoffs with or without him.

dl80
Member
dl80

But even if we assume he can’t play a passable 2b or SS (if he ever could), he could have played first base or corner outfield. There are very few teams that are completely set at 3b, LF, RF, and 1B.

Dave T
Member
Member
Dave T

I agree with most of this analysis, but I don’t agree that a 1B makes more sense for the Cardinals than a 3B.

The Cardinals are reportedly committed to playing Matt Carpenter at 1B in 2017, which makes sense as a move to upgrade IF defense both near-term and longer-term. Carpenter is 31, and a problem with signing a 1B free agent is that it would block Carpenter from moving to 1B for the length of that contract.

At 3B, the primary internal options for the Cardinals are Peralta and Gyorko. Peralta is a free agent after 2017, and could conceivably be traded with the Cardinals eating little if any of the 1 year / $10 million left on his contract. Gyorko could still get meaningful playing time as a utility infielder – including possibly platooning with Wong at 2B – even if the Cardinals signed Turner to play 3B.

lesmash
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Member
lesmash

Washington has committed to Rendon as their full time 3B, so scratch the Nats off the list. I agree that SF would have been a nice fit, as would the Yankees if they changed their minds and decided to let go of Headley.

gkasko
Member
gkasko

Exactly lesmash, the Nationals don’t need Turner. Look at Rendon’s stats, he wasn’t quite as good as Turner in 2016 or from 2014 to 2016 but it’s really close and he is 6 years younger and much cheaper. Where they could have used Turner was at first but with so much owed to Zimmerman they can’t move him to the bench.

devo1d
Member
devo1d

He was never going to SF. Unless the offer was overwhelming. And that was never in the cards, especially after we signed the Aussie. Look at his path. SoCal, to Long Beach to first real shot with the Dodgers. Sometimes it makes sense. He has a chance to win a ring where he grew up. It’s a steal for the Doyers.

Dan Rausch
Member
Dan Rausch

Has anyone heard why LAA wasn’t interested? They certainly could use another impact player.

Dooduh
Member
Dooduh

Is Det selling? Despite the talk, no real evidence of a sell-off yet.

Dave T
Member
Member
Dave T

Perhaps the hometown discount is amplified by the fact that 2.5 years ago Turner wouldn’t have realistically imagined that he’d ever make $60+ million playing baseball. In the spring of 2014, he was a 29 year old minor league signee with the Dodgers. Including his 2015-16 arb salaries and this contract, he’ll now make over $70 million (pre-tax) from his baseball career.

In a fairly short period of time, Turner has gone from thinking about how he’d make money in a post-baseball career to having set for life money. It’s a contrast with a more typical big money free agent who has spent most of his 6 years of service time expecting a big contract in free agency, and possibly developing spending habits to match that expectation. It could be easier to take the hometown discount when the dollars involved – even after the discount – exceed the player’s recent expectations of a dream scenario.

I will admit that this idea is psychological speculation that only Turner himself could prove or disprove.

output gap
Member
Member
output gap

Jake Arrieta wondered if he should start selling cars a few years ago. Today, he wants $200 million. Mindset can and usually does change when circumstances do.

Dave T
Member
Member
Dave T

Sure, not everybody is the same. Much like in “normal” jobs, some people would change cities for a job at a new company for a 25% pay increase, while others really like where they live and wouldn’t take that trade-off.

For a lot of baseball players who live elsewhere in the off-season, I also would guess that they view their teams’ respective cities as where they go for a 3 month work assignment each year, not “home”. They’re still playing road games for half of the regular season and working almost every day even for the half of the season that they’re not on the road, so the city in which they play may not matter that much to them.

devo1d
Member
devo1d

Could not agree more