Struggling Nationals Call on Trea Turner

It’s no secret that the Washington Nationals have fallen short of expectations this season. At 62-61, the unanimous NL East favorites from the preseason sit 5.5 games behind the Mets with a discouraging 19% chance of winning the NL East. Things have been particularly ugly of late, as the Nats have won just 11 of their last 30 games.

As Dave Cameron pointed out last week, several of the biggest culprits for the team’s struggles are members of the team’s offensive core. Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman have been bad. Jayson Werth’s been worse than that. But perhaps the biggest disappointment has been the team’s shortstop, Ian Desmond, who was projected for the second-highest WAR among Nationals hitters by ZiPS. Desmond’s .229/.279/.384 batting line has put him within spitting distance of replacement level — a far cry from his preseason ZiPS forecast of 4.0 WAR.

Despite his struggles, the Nationals stuck with Desmond over the season’s first four-and-a-half months, trotting him out there in 119 of their 123 games this season. But on Friday, the team began to diverge from the status quo. After weeks of speculation, the Nats finally summoned prospect Trea Turner to the big leagues to help solidify the shortstop position from here on out.

Turner’s 2015 season has been an interesting one, to say the least. Although the Padres dealt his services to Washington in the Wil Myers trade last offseason, a silly rule forced him to play out the first half of the year in the Padres organization. He hit .322/.385/.471 in 58 games with San Diego’s Double-A affiliate before he was finally permitted to join the Nationals organization. The Nats bumped Turner up to Triple-A a couple of weeks after his arrival, and he kept right on hitting. The 22-year-old slashed .314/.353/.431 in 48 games at the minors’ highest level before the Nationals felt it was time to promote him to majors.

Turner’s strikeout, walk and power numbers were nearly indistinguishable from league average at both of his stops this year. But that profile’s actually quite impressive for a 22-year-old, especially when you throw in his defensive abilities and his double-plus speed. Turner swiped 29 bags in the minors, and his foot speed also helped prop up his .390 BABIP on the year.

KATOH’s pretty impressed with the work Turner’s done this year. My system pegs the speedy shortstop for 5.6 WAR through age 28, which put him 50th overall on KATOH’s updated list from last week. Kiley McDaniel is even higher on Turner. He had him 15th overall in his mid-season update, up from 84th in the preseason.

Everybody loves a good comp, so let’s generate a few for Turner using his minor-league numbers. Using league-adjusted, regressed stats, along with age, I calculated the Mahalanobis Distance between Turner’s performance in Triple-A this year and every season in Triple-A since 1990 in which a batter recorded at least 400 plate appearances. Below, you’ll find a list of historical players whose performances were nearest and dearest to Turner’s, ranked from most to least similar.

Trea Turner Comparables, 1990-Present
Mah Dist Name PA thru 28 WAR thru 28
1 0.90 Alcides Escobar* 3,713 12.0
2 1.55 Henry Mateo 251 0.0
3 1.64 Carlos Garcia 1,926 1.9
4 1.78 Peter Bourjos* 1,634 10.3
5 1.96 Anthony Gose* 1,000 1.6
6 2.01 Willie Harris 1,015 0.0
7 2.16 Jayson Nix 869 0.9
8 2.22 Chris Latham 238 0.0
9 2.28 Jimmy Paredes* 813 0.0
10 2.28 Reggie Taylor 548 0.0
11 2.43 Nate McLouth 2,363 7.5
12 2.44 Willie Romero 0 0.0
13 2.48 Jacoby Ellsbury 2,568 17.8
14 2.55 Jermaine Allensworth 1,190 0.0
15 2.56 Amaury Garcia 27 0.2
16 2.68 Andres Santana 2 0.0
17 2.77 Xavier Avery* 107 0.0
18 2.80 Doug Brady 23 0.0
19 2.84 Chone Figgins 2,323 8.4
20 2.93 Santiago Perez 160 0.0

*Hitters who have yet to play their age-28 seasons.

And now just the shortstops…

Trea Turner Comparables, 1990-Present (Shortstops Only)
Rank Mah Dist Name PA thru 28 WAR thru 28
1 0.90 Alcides Escobar* 3,713 12.0
3 1.64 Carlos Garcia 1,926 1.9
20 2.93 Santiago Perez 160 0.0
33 3.21 Chase d’Arnaud 157 0.0
47 3.63 Joaquin Arias 855 0.9

Alcides Escobar stands out both in terms of performance and similarity, but there are plenty of other interesting names as well. While his career WAR total is unimpressive, Carlos Garcia had his moments in the 1990s, and even made an All-Star team in 1994. And although they aren’t shortstops, Peter Bourjos, Anthony Gose and Nate McLouth have all enjoyed some degree of big league success with offensive profiles similar to Turner’s. Jacoby Ellsbury, meanwhile, ultimately blossomed into a star.

Although he was one of the better hitters at both of his minor-league stops this season, it seems as though his bat still has some developing left to do. ZiPS and Steamer forecast him for roughly an 80 wRC+ from here on out. This is more or less what Desmond’s done this year, and falls short of even the most pessimistic rest-of-season projection for Desmond. More than likely, Turner’s not a better player than Desmond is right now. The Nationals are aware of this, which is why Turner’s only received three plate appearances since Friday’s call up. Turner will almost certainly steal a few starts in the coming weeks, but it’s doubtful he’ll usurp Desmond as the team’s primary shortstop.

Still, that’s not to say Turner can’t help the Nationals down the stretch in a part-time role. A plus defensive shortstop with 70 speed doesn’t need to hit all that much to be a successful big leaguer. Look no further than Alcides Escobar, Turner’s top Mahalanobis comp, who’s accumulated a respectable 12 career WAR to date despite his 76 wRC+. Furthermore, Turner’s excellent speed makes him an ideal pinch-running option late in games.

With Desmond’s contract set to expire at year’s end, the door is wide open for Turner to take over as the team’s everyday shortstop as soon as next year’s opening day. Going by this year’s minor-league performance, he figures to have a bright future ahead of him. For the next few weeks, however, he’ll fill the less glamorous role of part-time infielder. Following the team’s free fall through the NL East, it’s all hands on deck on Washington. And Turner’s easily one of the best 25 players in the Nationals organization.

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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Jorge Fabregas
Jorge Fabregas

Makes me wonder if anyone’s ever traced Trayce Thompson.


Trayce Thompson surrounded by tracings of his son?