The Other Nationals Star In Need of an Extension

Last week, Jay Jaffe wrote about the rumors that the Nationals were considering a contract extension for wünderkind Juan Soto, the team’s first step toward keeping him in town for the majority of his career. Though just 22 years old and four years away from free agency, Soto receiving an extension in the $400 million range would hardly be premature. Projection systems — which by their nature are supposed to be dispassionate and shoot for the middle — see him as having a no-doubt Hall of Fame career.

Yet if you’re a Nationals fan, you have cause to be suspicious that an extension gets done. You’ve seen your super-talented homegrown players leave unceremoniously in free agency as soon as they could, and while Soto has a more favorable outlook than Bryce Harper or Anthony Rendon did, you don’t want to see these negotiations drag out any longer than they have to.

It would be enough if Washington had just one young player’s future to stew upon this spring, but in fact, there are two. As Soto has been fielding questions about a possible extension in spring training, so too has shortstop Trea Turner, who at 27 is much closer to free agency; he’s set to hit the market after the 2022 season. That makes any extension decision that much more urgent. Turner knows it, and he’s been open about wanting to get an agreement done. From the Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga:

“I would love to play here my entire career,” Turner said Tuesday. “I’ve said it in the past. I’ve always liked it here, and don’t think the grass is greener on the other side. … I love it here. I love the atmosphere and the ballclub that [General Manager Mike] Rizzo and the coaching staff has put together every single year. We’ll see. I think those talks have happened in the past, and hopefully they’ll happen in the future.”

The Nationals’ position is a tricky one. Turner’s free agency would come two years before Soto’s, but the latter’s contract may still be the most important one, as it will be the larger of the two and must fit within Washington’s payroll. But retaining Turner in 2023 and beyond won’t come cheap. One of the top prospects in baseball when he debuted in 2015, he has slowly but surely started living up to that billing, turning into one of the league’s best shortstops over the last three seasons.

Top MLB Shortstops, 2018-20
Francisco Lindor 361 1665 8.4% 14.8% .277 .343 .502 120 -3.2 41.3 14.0
Xander Bogaerts 347 1503 10.1% 17.6% .300 .372 .535 136 2.0 17.7 13.6
Trevor Story 361 1571 8.2% 25.8% .292 .355 .554 124 11.7 26.2 13.5
Marcus Semien 374 1686 10.3% 16.8% .263 .339 .445 114 5.2 34.2 12.7
Trea Turner 343 1568 8.5% 17.9% .291 .356 .474 118 17.3 8.4 11.1
Javier Báez 357 1441 4.4% 27.6% .272 .308 .514 112 4.8 22.0 9.8
Paul DeJong 319 1328 8.7% 24.2% .238 .317 .428 99 3.9 33.7 8.0
Tim Anderson 325 1345 4.1% 22.9% .291 .323 .466 111 5.3 3.4 7.6
Andrelton Simmons 279 1151 5.8% 8.4% .282 .328 .391 95 -1.3 43.1 7.4
Didi Gregorius 276 1150 7.0% 13.0% .262 .318 .477 109 3.8 16.3 7.1

It wouldn’t be right to say that Turner is a top-five shortstop right now; Corey Seager and Fernando Tatis Jr. didn’t make this list, as neither played in 2018. But he’s in an enviable spot. His elite speed has made him one of the game’s best baserunners, with 171 steals in 205 tries, a success rate of 83%. That speed also does him favors on balls in play: His career .339 BABIP ranks 15th in the majors since 2015.

But Turner isn’t merely Billy Hamilton-gone-right. He’s a legitimate threat at the plate who has been steadily improving for years now. In 2020, he hit .335/.394/.588 in 59 games, finishing with a 158 wRC+. Every one of those numbers was a career best, as were his isolated power (.253) and strikeout rate (13.9%) figures, and his 2.7 WAR was the fifth-best total in the majors. The shortened season, his team’s poor performance, and Soto producing a 201 wRC+ all overshadowed Turner’s legitimate superstar effort, though, and he finished seventh in a crowded NL MVP field.

The Nationals might be bad in 2021, and Soto might eclipse the 200 wRC+ threshold again, but don’t bet on Turner being denied stardom much longer. While his 2020 offensive peak represents a bit of an outlier next to his other seasons, the upward trend in his performance is convincing.

Take his batted ball profile. A player who runs like Turner is well-equipped to take advantage of ground balls, but he is more than just his legs. In three of the last four seasons, he has finished in the 72nd percentile or better in average exit velocity. If you dislike that stat — and Tom Tango recently made a good case for why you should — then maybe you’d prefer max exit velocity; he rated in the 75th percentile or better in that stat in each of the last four years. The point is that Turner can hit the ball quite hard, and he keeps learning to take better advantage of that. In each of the past three years, he’s lowered his ground-ball rate and raised both his line-drive rate and his rate of home runs per fly ball.

Turner making that kind of progress without sacrificing his knack for contact is even more impressive. In 2020, he chased about 27.7% of pitches thrown outside the strike zone, according to Statcast — within spitting distance of both his career rate and the league average. But he cut his whiff rate on those pitches, dipping by about 35% against off-speed pitches and 22% on breaking pitches. Despite making more contact on secondary pitches outside the strike zone, his hard-hit rate against those pitches didn’t suffer at all.

This kind of ascendance gives the Nationals plenty of incentive to get a deal done quickly. As of right now, Turner’s career amounts to just one four-win season, two three-win seasons, and an impressive 2020 that came with the caveat of a small sample size. If he maintains last year’s gains into 2021, though, he could find himself in the middle of another MVP race and raise his price significantly.

Turner also has good reason to want to wrap up a large extension. He doesn’t provide nearly the same value on defense that some of his peers do, and while he isn’t a disaster at shortstop — he was actually very good in 2018 — advanced metrics have been skeptical about him over the last two years. He ranked in the 24th percentile in OAA last year and finished with -5 defensive runs saved. There isn’t any debate over whether he’s a shortstop in 2021, but this season will probably go a long way toward answering whether he’s a shortstop in 2025. A bump over to second base or even an outfield corner would make the potential in his bat less of a luxury and more of a necessity.

Fortunately, ZiPS buys into the quality of Turner’s bat and base-swiping enough to project roughly All-Star level production for the next four years, in addition to a few more productive seasons in his mid-30s:

ZiPS Projection – Trea Turner
2021 .297 .355 .513 593 108 176 34 8 26 84 51 111 38 122 -2 5.2
2022 .296 .356 .520 558 102 165 34 8 25 81 49 104 34 124 -3 4.9
2023 .297 .357 .525 543 99 161 33 8 25 81 48 99 32 126 -4 4.7
2024 .296 .357 .524 523 94 155 31 8 24 77 46 95 30 125 -5 4.4
2025 .291 .351 .510 502 88 146 28 8 22 72 44 89 27 121 -6 3.7
2026 .288 .345 .498 480 82 138 25 8 20 66 40 80 24 116 -7 3.1
2027 .283 .338 .479 453 74 128 22 8 17 59 36 72 21 110 -8 2.3
2028 .276 .328 .453 424 65 117 19 7 14 52 31 63 18 101 -10 1.4
2029 .269 .318 .424 394 57 106 16 6 11 45 26 55 15 91 -11 0.6
2030 .264 .309 .402 363 49 96 13 5 9 38 22 47 13 84 -13 -0.1

It’s not the 90-WAR projection ZiPS awarded to Soto, but 30 wins by the time Turner turns 36 is nothing to sneeze at. It would give him nearly 50 WAR for his career, making him a great candidate for the Hall of Very Good. A third of that value is expected to come before he reaches free agency, but the 20 additional WAR he’d get afterward would still place his value in the $160 million range, going by Craig Edwards’ pre-pandemic assessment that teams spend about $8 million per win in free agency. (Dan Szymborski’s post-pandemic assessment is much more bleak, but I’m hopeful that this year’s market is not the new normal.)

Turner is making $13 million in arbitration, so buying out his final two years of team control takes the total cost of an extension into the $200 million range, and that could go even higher when you consider that Washington needs to pay up for the privilege of being the only team negotiating with him. There’s also the possibility that the two sides could reach an agreement similar to the one between Xander Bogaerts and the Red Sox, in which he signed a six-year, $120 million extension entering his final year of team control at 26 but got a player opt-out after the third year of the contract.

Can the Nationals afford to extend both Soto and Turner? It wouldn’t be easy. Stephen Strasburg is on the books for $35 million annually through 2026, and Patrick Corbin will get at least $23 million a year through 2024. Adding two more massive contracts could seriously restrict how the team can fill out the rest of the roster, but right now, it’s unclear what a good alternative is. The farm system is widely regarded as one of the worst in baseball, if not the worst. If you’re not in the process of developing more great young players, it might be a good idea to pay the ones you already have.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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1 year ago

“Can the Nationals afford to extend both Soto and Turner? It wouldn’t be easy.”

What’s the evidence for this? ‘Would they be willing to pay it’ is very different from ‘can they easily afford it’

1 year ago
Reply to  gobobbygo

I think the OP did a pretty good job of showing the evidence, which I think includes what you said, the Nats may just be uncomfortable ponying up financially. That’s possibly a factor in how “hard” or “easy” extensions are.

My personal guess is, the Nats do their thing and make a QO, let Turner walk in FA, pocket the pick, and then use it on a prep pitcher who has already had TJ, who never pans out and gets traded for a mess of pottage (and maybe goes on to be a star somewhere else).

Please, Rizzo, draft hitters and stop picking the injured arms. Please.

1 year ago
Reply to  Josh

The Nationals first round picks are weirdly easy to predict. You just look for the tallest, highest-velocity guy with a nasty breaking ball who you think will be available in that range. So if Jaden Hill falls to the Nats based on command concerns, it’ll be him, and if it isn’t it’ll be Andrew Painter. Put your money down now.

Petey Bienelmember
1 year ago
Reply to  gobobbygo

For CBT purposes, the Nats have negligible commitments beyond Strasburg and Corbin after this year. Literally, it’s one more year of Will Harris at $8 million, and an option on Schwarber. That’s $64 million, with incidentals and filling out a 40 man Cot’s projects that to $84 million. This is a team that has been running in the neighborhood of $190 – $205 million the past 4 years. The only tricky financial part of doing Turner now and Soto after the season is that the Nats have about $16 million below the CBT in 2021. Assuming they don’t want to go over that level, bumping Turner up to, say $23 million AAV would mean getting within $6 million of the threshold. That’s OK if they are contenders – the Lerners seem willing to go over threshold when in contention and they had a reset. If they aren’t contenders, then they could probably dump some marginal 1 year salary commitments closer to the trade deadline.