The Risk of a Justin Turner Deal

While Yoenis Cespedes appears headed for the biggest free-agent contract this winter, he doesn’t enter the offseason with the distinction of having recorded the best 2016 campaign of all the market’s remaining free agents. That would be Justin Turner, actually, with a 5.6 WAR. In terms of probable outcomes for next season, Turner has Cespedes beat there, too, with a 3.6 projected WAR for next year (to Cespedes’ 3.0).

So Turner, despite having produced the better 2016 season and despite possessing the better 2017 projection, is likely to receive less money than Cespedes. Turner’s a year older, which might account for some of the difference, but age is also baked into the aforementioned projections. Ultimately, Turner could be a bargain. Even with bargains, though, there remains some risk.

Dave Cameron, in his annual Free Agent Bargains piece, makes the case for Turner:

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. At $70 or $80 million, Turner still isn’t getting priced like a star; that’s Mike Leake money these days. And Turner is pretty clearly better than a pitch-to-contact starting pitcher. So for a team that wants an impact player at a price that doesn’t reflect the kind of value they’re likely to get, Turner is probably the best bet on the market.

The evidence backs Cameron’s assertion. The crowd pegged Turner for a $70 million contract over four years, while Cameron went a bit higher at $80 million. Using Turner’s 3.6 projection for next season, a value of $8.5 million per WAR and the standard aging curve, we arrive the following projected values.

Justin Turner’s Estimated Value — 5 yr / $119.8 M
Year Age WAR $/WAR Est. Value
2017 32 3.6 $8.5 M $30.6 M
2018 33 3.1 $8.9 M $27.7 M
2019 34 2.6 $9.4 M $24.4 M
2020 35 2.1 $9.8 M $20.7 M
2021 36 1.6 $10.3 M $16.5 M
Totals 13.0 $119.8 M

Assumptions

Value: $8.5M/WAR with 5.0% inflation (for first 5 years)
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)

With those figures, Turner is likely to be a major bargain. But beginning with Turner’s 2017 projection is only one means to estimate his future production. We can also use some comps.

Turner has had an unusual run to his current role as “prime free agent,” going from replacement-level player through age 28 to one of the better players in baseball over the past three years. He’s not the first player to make this type of transition, but his unusual trajectory makes it difficult to find historical precedent.

To start, I looked at non-catchers who, from age 29 through 31, (a) recorded a WAR between 10.4 and 15.4 (Turner produced 12.9 WAR), (b) recorded a wRC+ between 128 and 148 (Turner put up a 138 wRC+), and (c) had accumulated a plate-appearance total within 20% of Turner’s 1,383. Of this group, Turner had the fewest plate appearances by 100, lending further evidence to Turner’s uniqueness. Only seven players come up:

Justin Turner Comps: Age 29 Through Age 31
Name PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Def WAR
Robby Thompson 1637 52 .279 .354 .454 130 24.6 13.8
Jim Edmonds 1484 77 .291 .399 .549 140 10.2 13.1
George Brett 1576 59 .299 .371 .512 138 1 12.8
Reggie Smith 1578 60 .291 .365 .493 138 -4 12.2
Lenny Dykstra 1551 30 .296 .405 .450 133 -5 11.9
Aramis Ramirez 1545 68 .303 .377 .529 130 10.1 11.4
Derrek Lee 1545 76 .321 .404 .574 147 -27.1 10.9
AVERAGE 1559 60 .297 .382 .509 137 1.4 12.3
Justin Turner 1383 50 .296 .364 .492 138 17.1 12.8

We see a pretty good group here. In their age-31 seasons, the group averaged 3.6 WAR collectively, right in line with Turner’s projection. Here’s how those same players fared from age 32 through age 36.

Justin Turner Comps: Age 32 Through Age 36
Name PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Def WAR
Jim Edmonds 2694 157 .283 .395 .571 148 37.6 29.1
George Brett 2911 104 .302 .397 .504 141 -29.4 22.2
Reggie Smith 1810 87 .299 .394 .534 155 -4.9 17.5
Aramis Ramirez 2645 105 .285 .343 .482 122 -9.2 11.8
Derrek Lee 2416 93 .282 .358 .479 120 -25.1 9.9
Lenny Dykstra 456 5 .263 .365 .376 100 15.9 3.0
Robby Thompson 800 15 .217 .307 .340 76 13.2 1.4
AVERAGE 1962 81 .276 .366 .469 123 -0.3 13.6
ANNUAL AVG 392 16 .276 .366 .469 123 -0.1 2.7

Five of seven players played well over the five years Turner is a candidate to receive — with the average helped a bit by Jim Edmonds, who had one of the 10 greatest age-32 through -36 stretches in the past 50 years. Injuries hurt Thompson’s career and Dysktra played less than a full season at age 31, so it might make sense actually to exclude him. In all, we have a very small list, which isn’t extremely helpful, but the results nevertheless resemble Turner’s projections and lend further support to the notion that Turner is going to be a bargain this winter.

Since the previous group wasn’t entirely satisfying, I tried one more time. Instead of focusing on three years, this next group is non-catchers who, at ages 30 and 31, (a) recorded a WAR figure within two wins of Turner’s 9.6 mark, (b) produced a wRC+ within 10 points of Turner’s 131, and (c) finished within 20% of Turner’s 1061 plate appearances — and also recorded full seasons with at least 3.0 WAR at age 31. This criteria yielded 18 players, and many of those players were very good. Here is how those players performed from age 32 through 36.

Justin Turner Comps: Age 32 Through Age 36
Name PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Def WAR
Jeff Kent 3231 141 .307 .374 .543 136 18.7 26.5
Barry Larkin 2663 77 .304 .401 .491 132 43.9 23.8
Jose Cruz 3120 59 .297 .360 .432 127 1.5 20.8
Bobby Grich 2489 88 .269 .374 .449 132 15.4 19.1
Eddie Murray 3280 109 .276 .355 .444 123 -39.8 16.3
Ron Cey 2854 114 .260 .339 .449 118 -2.9 15.5
Jimmy Wynn 1997 68 .235 .377 .408 126 8.3 14
Doug DeCinces 2622 100 .256 .327 .441 108 -3 10.8
Amos Otis 2434 52 .275 .335 .409 104 -23.7 7.7
Ben Oglivie 2515 83 .261 .336 .423 111 -41.1 7
Vladimir Guerrero 2900 111 .303 .355 .490 120 -74.7 5.9
Kirk Gibson 1705 48 .242 .332 .400 104 -25.5 4.8
Don Money 1390 42 .241 .321 .405 104 -10.2 4.2
Carlos Guillen 1188 30 .266 .345 .421 103 -22.1 1.7
Bob Bailey 630 17 .260 .369 .395 113 -15.8 1.5
Robby Thompson 800 15 .217 .307 .340 76 13.2 1.4
Gorman Thomas 1723 71 .202 .319 .389 95 -42.7 0.1
Von Hayes 673 4 .225 .304 .306 72 0.4 0.1
AVERAGE 2123 68 .261 .346 .424 111 -11.1 10.1
ANNUAL AVG 425 14 .261 .346 .424 111 -2.2 2.0

We seee a bit more risk with this group of players. Ten of the 18 players failed to crack eight wins above replacement, which is the break-even point for the crowd’s $70 million estimate. Seven of the players would have paid off handsomely: we see Hall of Famers in Eddie Murray and Barry Larkin, and two players who were pretty close in Jeff Kent and Bobby Grich. As mentioned, every player above had at least 3.0 WAR at age 31. Of note, only half the players reached three wins above replacement the following season. Seven players didn’t even put up a WAR greater than 1.0, and none of those seven recovered in following seasons.

The average from the latter group comes out right around 10 WAR over five years. Here is what that contract looks like:

Justin Turner’s Estimated Value — 5 yr / $91.6 M
Year Age WAR $/WAR Est. Value
2017 32 3.0 $8.5 M $25.5 M
2018 33 2.5 $8.9 M $22.3 M
2019 34 2.0 $9.4 M $18.7 M
2020 35 1.5 $9.8 M $14.8 M
2021 36 1.0 $10.3 M $10.3 M
Totals 10.0 $91.6 M

Assumptions

Value: $8.5M/WAR with 5.0% inflation (for first 5 years)
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)

Even here, Turner looks to provide good value on an expected contract. That could make him a bargain this winter, but Turner’s unusual career and lower amount of playing time does add some risk. Players don’t play as well into their 30s, and whoever ends up with Turner is going to end up with some down seasons. If he can avoid a big dropoff, he will be a steal for whichever team that signs him, but there’s some precedent for a scenario in which his production falls well short of the money he’d receive from a potential contract.

We hoped you liked reading The Risk of a Justin Turner Deal by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Fyandor
Member
Fyandor

I agree that it *feels* like Turner is higher-risk, but the evidence you’ve presented doesn’t support that at all. The conclusion you’ve drawn is “sometimes similar players have been bad, sometimes good, and the average is higher than his expected contract.” The data suggest his risk is no greater (and possibly less than) most baseball players.