Athletic: Should the LAD re-sign Justin Turner?

By: coachemup!



Should the Dodgers re-sign Justin Turner?

When the Dodgers recorded the final strike of the final out of the final game of the 2020 season and won their first World Series championship in 32 years, Justin Turner was nowhere to be found.

The de facto team captain had been pulled from the game in the seventh inning for unspecified reasons. Given that Turner is a veteran player not prone to getting benched for boneheaded and selfish mistakes, that his solid defense at third base is not the kind of liability a team would try to upgrade in late innings with a lead, and that the Dodgers were, you know, six outs away from clinching their first title since 1988, one had to assume Turner didn’t take part in the celebratory dog pile because he had sustained an injury so gruesome that he had to be taken to the hospital. Or, perhaps, God forbid, some kind of medical emergency had befallen his wife or another close family member, and Turner had to tend to a matter much more important than the outcome of any baseball game.

It didn’t take long for the world to find out what had happened. During the seventh inning, the Dodgers were notified that Turner had tested positive for COVID-19. All of his teammates had tested negative. He was yanked from the game and isolated in a room under Globe Life Field so fast that half of his teammates didn’t find out what happened until after the game. And that is where Turner initially stayed while the Dodgers danced and sang and hugged one another on the field as they celebrated a championship at the end of a particularly grueling season and at the end of a devastating eight-year run of coming so close to winning it all, so many times, and failing, over and over again.

Turner has been the blue-collar heartbeat of the Dodgers since they signed him in 2014. A famous Mets castoff, he is just about the only Dodger who never failed them in October during those playoff runs. Year after year, as pedigreed young sluggers like Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger struggled in October to put the ball in play, Turner remained a line-drive machine from the No. 3 spot in the order.

Good teams like the Dodgers have little trouble handling lesser opponents during the regular reason. But each October, they face the best pitchers in the world. For so many postseasons in a row, Turner was the toughest out in the lineup. At times, he looked like the only tough out. Fall behind against Turner and make a mistake, and he would hit the ball over the fence. Get ahead in the count against him and he’d shorten his swing and slice a ball the other way to drive in a run when the Dodgers needed it most.

“An absolute pain in the ass to pitch to,” one pitcher told me in 2015 when I was trying to figure out how on earth Turner managed a 1.392 OPS in a series against the Mets, in which the Dodgers had to face Jake deGrom twice, Matt Harvey at his peak and Noah Syndergaard. “And not just because he stands on top of the plate and takes the inner half away. He never gives away at-bats.”

Turner has played 796 regular-season games for the Dodgers. He has posted a .302 batting average, a .382 on-base percentage and an OPS of .886. He has homered once in every 23.1 at bats. But here’s what’s so incredible about Turner’s value to the Dodgers, for whom successful seasons are now defined by winning world championships: No matter the quality of the pitcher he’s facing or whatever is happening in his life on the field or off, Turner delivers consistency at the plate that is almost shocking.

In 72 postseason games as a Dodger, Turner has posted a .295 batting average, a .392 on-base percentage and an .899 OPS. He has hit a home run every 22.3 playoff at-bats. In other words, on the biggest stage each October and against the best pitchers in the game, he is the same player (or maybe a smidge better) than he is during the regular season. He does not go into the kind of postseason funk that derails a team’s offense. For instance, Bellinger’s career regular-season OPS is .911. His postseason OPS is .631.

I don’t write this to pick on Bellinger. Lord knows he made some defensive plays this October that were just as important to the Dodgers winning a world championship as anything anyone else did. He also hit the home run in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series that wound up winning the pennant. But I bring it up to point out just how hard it is to be good in October. The pitching is better. The pressure to perform can be crushing.

Over seven postseasons, Turner has proven to be an unflappable freak of nature with a slow heartbeat, the player you want at the plate with the game on the line. Up until that fateful moment he decided to leave that isolation room and knowingly expose others to an infectious disease, he had done nothing but endear himself to Dodgers fans. Before he made that selfish decision, the Dodgers’ re-signing of Turner felt like a slam dunk.

Now? Perhaps that slam dunk has been downgraded to a layup. Or an uncontested 8-footer (if analytics even allows NBA players to attempt those anymore). After MLB released a statement blasting Turner for returning to the field, removing his mask and potentially exposing teammates, employees and their family members to the deadly coronavirus, Turner remained silent. He tweeted that he felt symptom-free before he went back on the field. Then he turned off his comments on his Instagram feed.

MLB said it would investigate the matter. After a week of silence, Turner and MLB both issued statements apologizing for the incident and shouldering blame. Turner said he had been urged to return to the field by club officials. MLB said it had not done enough to stop the incident from happening. And regardless of how one feels about Turner’s decision, MLB did little to prove its claim that its top priority was safety when it allowed 11,000 fans to attend the World Series game and penetrate a coronavirus-free supposed “bubble” that, by definition, could no longer exist.

Turner apologized to his teammates, but they were so elated in that moment that it did not seem like any of them were bothered at all. Turner did not apologize to the fans, who got to enjoy the Dodgers winning the World Series for about five minutes before finding out one of their favorite players had contracted a deadly disease and for about 40 minutes before they watched in horror as he re-took the field. It should have been a night of jubilation for Dodgers fans. Instead, many went to bed furious that what should have been a joyful moment was ruined because his actions after the game overshadowed the game itself.

The world moved on. The same week MLB and Turner issued their joint “nothing to see here” statements, the United States picked its next president. COVID-19 cases continued to surge throughout the country. People are weighing whether to visit their families for Thanksgiving or Christmas or abandon plans to keep their relatives safe. No one is talking about Justin Turner anymore.

The Dodgers are a franchise deeply concerned with their public image, as much as any other team in sports. And they are right to be. This is the franchise of Jackie Robinson, Fernando Valenzuela, Hideo Nomo, Vin Scully and Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers are known for breaking color barriers and demanding excellence of their employees. Had MLB and Turner not agreed on an acceptable version of what happened quickly — had Turner refused to apologize and had this dragged on into next season and included some kind of suspension — it’s tough to imagine the Dodgers re-signing him. They could have, sure, but it would have been a headache on top of the fact that Turner will turn 36 this week and that the pandemic has crashed the multiyear-deal market for almost everyone in their 30s.

But Turner is apparently out of the doghouse. Forgiven, forgotten. It makes sense for the Dodgers to offer him a two-year contract for his age 37 and age 38 seasons. He has earned it. Every MLB owner besides Steve Cohen (who just bought the Mets) lost big money this year. Angels owner Arte Moreno said this week that he does not anticipate slashing payroll next year. If that’s true, the Angels and Mets might be the only teams not doing so. None of us have any idea how much of a pay cut good free agents will have to take this offseason during this down market.

Turner is in a frustrating situation because of his four-year contract, worth $64 million, that ran from 2017 to 2020. Unfortunately for him, it was backloaded. He earned $13 million in 2017, $12 million in 2018 and $19 million in 2019. He was slated to earn his highest-ever salary of $20 million in 2020, but the pandemic sliced that to $8 million, costing him $12 million. Had his salary been evenly split over four years at $16 million, he would have lost something like $9.5 million this year. A person earning that much money to play sports for a living will have a hard time finding sympathy from the rest of us in the peanut gallery, but players are acutely aware of every single wrinkle when it comes to their contracts. Turner had to have been irked (even though this pandemic obviously was not the Dodgers’ fault).

Would it be enough to motivate him to take the highest-dollar offer out there? Maybe. Players don’t need much motivation to do that, even under normal circumstances.

Would there be another multiyear deal for Turner besides the Dodgers’? In a normal market, absolutely. The guy is a stud. In this market? It’s hard to say. But the Mets have a new rich owner looking to make a splash, and I hear they made a mistake letting Turner go once.

If I ran the Dodgers, I would re-sign Turner to a two year contract, break the bank to sign Seager to a long-term extension and then slide Seager over to third base when Turner’s deal was up.

Turner’s presence at third and batting third in the lineup has worked well for the Dodgers for the last six seasons. Why not try to squeeze another couple years of magic out of it?

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