The Best Available Free Agent: Cespedes or Turner?

It’s no secret that position players are the big prize in this winter’s relatively weak free-agent class. Available top-tier starting pitching is essentially non-existent, but there are a few hitters who will be expected to be a big boon to their new teams. Even then, though, it’s not as if the ranks of available hitters are dripping with star-level talent. I keep going back to free-agent rankings ordered according to 2017 projection systems – here’s our free-agent depth chart and here are MLB.com’s projections – and grappling with the name atop the projections: Justin Turner. Is it actually possible that a 32-year-old infielder coming off his first major-league season as a full-fledged starter is the game’s best available free agent?

The most popular name to cite as this year’s “best” free agent is Yoenis Cespedes. He appears atop Dave Cameron’s top-50 free-agent rankings and all indications are that he’s the most likely player to lock-down a nine-figure contract before next year. Edwin Encarnacion is also available, and all he’s done is hit more homers over the last five seasons (193) than every player in the game except Chris Davis (197). But then there’s Justin Turner. As Cameron said when he listed Turner as the best potential free-agent bargain this winter: “Turner looks like this year’s Ben Zobrist: a good player who will get underpriced because he doesn’t feel as good as he actually is.”

Inasmuch as there’s such a thing as consensus in free-agent rankings, the prevailing wisdom is to list Cespedes, Encarnacion, and Turner in some order as baseball’s best available free-agent hitters. Let’s take a look at what those aforementioned projection systems have to say about 2017 for each of those three players:

2017 Projections
Name WARcel Steamer
Justin Turner 3.5 3.6
Yoenis Cespedes 3.2 3.1
Edwin Encarnacion 3.2 2.4
WARcel is the projection system used by Tom Tango at MLB.com

As far as these projection systems are concerned, there’s no debate who the cream of the crop is in this free-agent class. Why then is Cespedes the most-oft cited king of the field? There are two big reasons. First, and most importantly, Cespedes has a more established track record than Turner. Ever since reaching the majors in 2012, Cespedes has been a regular, whereas Turner toiled as a utility infielder for years before finally securing his spot in the everyday lineup with the Dodgers during the middle of the 2015 season. The other reason is that Cespedes is younger which, while undeniably true, is arguably an overstated consideration given that the age difference between the two is less than a year. So, is conventional wisdom picking up on context that the projection systems are missing, or should Turner actually be king?

Before jumping into Cespedes vs. Turner, let’s step back and start with Encarnacion vs. Turner. When Turner joined the Dodgers prior to the 2014 season, his career began to turn around. He made adjustments to his swing and slowly shed his former reputation as a part-time utility infielder to emerge as the player he is today. Over these past three seasons he’s posted a terrific .296/.364/.492 slash line and a well above-average 138 wRC+. Over the same time period, however, Encarnacion has hit .269/.361/.544 for a 144 wRC+ in nearly 500 more plate appearances.

All other things being equal, Encarnacion would clearly be the more attractive free agent but, of course, all other things are not equal. Encarnacion, who will turn 34 in January, is nearly two years older than Turner and is already at the point in his career where he offers no defensive value due to his status as a first baseman/designated hitter. Also, while Encarnacion’s biggest advantage over Turner has been his power that gap is closing. Turner has been consistently hitting for more power over the past three seasons:

turnerencarnacioniso

It’s always worth noting that Encarnacion may hold more value to an individual team if that team is set at every position except designated hitter, but in a vacuum, Turner is clearly the more valuable free agent.

The Turner/Cespedes debate is a bit less clear, though. Both players have made tremendous steps forward over the past few seasons – Turner with his power surge and success in his new starting role, and Cespedes with a power surge of his own as well as a boost in walk rate. Over the past three seasons as a whole, however, there’s little question as to who has been the more productive major leaguer: it’s Turner.

While Turner posted his 138 wRC+ line, Cespedes has hit .277/.326/.506 for a 126 wRC+ of his own. Add in the fact that Turner has posted real defensive value at third base while Cespedes has been an inconsistent defender in the outfield and Turner clearly appears to have been the better player over that stretch — although, again, with the caveat that Cespedes has recorded nearly 500 more plate appearances. The big questions, then, are these. One: whose improvements do you believe are more sustainable going forward? And two: who’s at greater risk for an age-induced performance decline?

Given the increase in home runs across the league and accounting for their personal strengths (Cespedes his pure physical strength, Turner his re-worked swing), I’m inclined to believe that the power increases for both players are sustainable going forward. The steps Turner has taken to establish himself as an everyday player are similarly convincing. The one improvement I expect to see regress back towards previous career norms going forward is Cespedes’ new heightened walk rate, which I looked at last week. As for age-induced decline? The risks are similar enough for both players that I don’t see how one has a leg up on the other.

So to which player do you offer a four- or five-year contract? The power-hitting corner outfielder with the more established track record? Or the slightly more well-rounded corner infielder who is — and I really must stress this one more time — coming of his first full season as a major-league starter? There isn’t a right answer, but there is personal preference and, for me, as crazy as it feels to say, I’m taking the red-headed former Dodger… and the fact that his price tag will likely be cheaper than Cespedes’ is just the cherry on top.

We hoped you liked reading The Best Available Free Agent: Cespedes or Turner? by Corinne Landrey!

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Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and MLB.com's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.

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vivalajeter
Member
vivalajeter

Cespedes.

While Turner might have the better 3-year wRC+, that ignores a couple things. For one thing, his numbers steadily decreased from ’14 to ’15 to ’16 (158 wRC+ in 2014, down to 124 last year). It also ignores Cespedes becoming a completely different hitter in 2015. Cespedes is the better hitter over the last two years, even though Turner was platooned more (Turner faced ~70% RHP the last two years, while Cespedes faced ~80%).

Secondly, Cespedes isn’t really an inconsistent defender in the outfield. He’s consistently good in LF, and consistently bad in CF. His UZR/150 has been in the +10 to +20 range the last few years in LF, and in the -10 to -20 range in CF (DRS tells the same story). If you sign him for LF, you can expect a solid defensive player.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

I think identifying Turner’s wRC+ as a projectable trend is definitely a fallacy. In fact, the projections will probably expect him to match or exceed his 2016 wRC+ because he has exceeded in the past. One piece of anecdotal support for this is also that he had offseason knee surgery and started the year slowly, picking up later in the year.

Also, while I don’t buy him as a full-on reverse-split guy, Turner has shown a reverse split over a pretty large sample now. In my estimation, it’s likely he has very small regular split. Turner was platooned more but there is little reason to think he benefited much from it.

nate0605
Member
nate0605

There’s anecdotal support for Cespedes defense being consistent as well. He had a nagging quad injury essentially all year in 2016, which clearly affected him in the field.

kingshowman
Member
kingshowman

Cespedes was fine in the field, he just isn’t a CF, never has been. He’s always been Plus-plus in LF