Editor's Note: This post originally appeared in October, but given Jon Morosi's report that the Cardinals are interested in Justin Turner, it probably deserves a fresh look.
The hot stove season continues to get closer. Today I want to talk about the free agent I most want to see wearing the birds on the bat next season: Justin Turner. The Cardinals are a team full of quality players, but they possess little high-end talent. You might not think of Turner as a high-end talent. Honestly, it's a new thing to me too. Perhaps the reasons he's flown under the radar are similar to the reasons Matt Carpenter's excellent production has been ignored by much of the media.
So let's dissect Turner's production. We’ll begin by looking at Turner’s stats over the last three seasons:
Turner may be one of the more under-rated players in the game in the last three years, averaging 5.6 WAR/600 PA. Only being a part-time player in 2014 and 2015 costs him in the counting stats, but he still ranks 24th in WAR over the last three years. Kevin Kiermaier is right in front of him in WAR at 23rd and had 50 less PA than Turner over that time frame. Other than that, everyone else in front of Turner has received more playing time. You have to get all the way down to 43rd with Francisco Lindor to find the next player with less playing time than Turner (1120).
His biggest strength is contact quality, but he backs it up with a strong overall game. Among the 235 qualified players in the last three years, he’s 41st in BABIP and 55th in ISO. Add on a lower than average strikeout rake and he’s off to a good start. He doesn’t give any of that away in terms of drawing walks or running the bases, and looks to be above-average on defense.
2016’s defensive score might jump out to you, but it takes about three years of stats to get a good idea of a defender. The defensive value shown here is based on UZR; Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) has consistently rated him a strong defender. Over an appropriate sample size, the metrics show that he's been a strong defender.
Each of the last two years, Turner’s BABIP has decreased. Those two years also saw increased power rates. It seems Turner is trying to turn himself into more of a power hitter. I decided to get a better idea of his contact quality and see if that was the case.
If you haven’t read any of my articles using Statcast data, here’s a post where I analyze Matt Holliday’s balls in play, and here’s one on Kolten Wong’s power numbers. I also contrasted Gyorko and Greg Garcia’s contact quality, as well as the quality of contact allowed by Carlos Martinez. In those articles I introduce the stats used here.
HRPBB stands for Home Run possible batted ball, and includes every batted ball that left the bat between 18 and 42 degrees, inclusive. Those are the angles where the large majority of home runs occur. xHR/HRPBB is calculated by finding how often each home run possible batted ball - based on its own specific combination of angle and velocity - will leave the park. xBABIP and xwOBA on-contact are calculated similarly. xwOBA is calculated based on the player’s non-contact wOBA and expected on-contact wOBA..
Indeed, the peripherals back up the results: Turner has traded batting average on balls in play for power. What’s commendable in that Turner hasn’t sold out to the pull side yet. Here’s a look at some more conventional batted ball stats from Fangraphs.com:
His power has mostly come from turning a chunk of his grounders into fly balls, and just plain hitting the ball harder. Hitting the ball to all fields will help ward off shifts, which should help buoy his BABIP. His infield fly ball rate has remained steady as well, which is also encouraging.
The shift in strategy didn’t quite work out to make Turner a better hitter overall in 2016, as his expected wOBA on-contact and thus his total expected wOBA were both lower than the year before. However, there is one major variable for why that was the case: In the offseason, Turner had knee surgery.
The narrative last year was that Turner slowed down at the end of the year, playing hurt. It then also makes sense that he might not have been at full-strength at the start of 2016. Indeed, we can see this in the numbers. Turner’s power fell off near the end of last year and he sustained that drop during the first third of the year:
This mirrors a similar drop in how often Turner hit the ball hard:
Normally, you don’t want to split up parts of a player’s season, and ignore parts of it while emphasizing others. A player’s production ebbs and flows. But playing hurt or recovering from injury will definitely sap production, particularly power. Turner tried to hit for more power in 2016, and achieved it, even while likely not at full-strength going into the year. That would seem to point to reason to believe more power may be coming in 2017. Maybe that's just narrative, but sometimes the narrative actually fits.
Those are the details. Let’s get to the cost. First, let’s get a decent idea of what a player like Turner is worth. We’ll start with his Fangraphs Depth Chart projection, and pro-rate it for 550 PA a year. Typically I would assume 600 PA, but I figure for a player with Turner in his 30's with a recent injury past, we should adjust that a bit. We’ll use that for his 2017 production. Last Saturday, I shared with you an average aging curve for WAR per 600 plate appearances. We’ll apply that curve to Turner’s four seasons after 2017. To get the expected value of Turner’s expected production, we’ll use a price of $8M per win, and inflate 5% for each additional year. Here’s the results:
You can deduct some off because he will almost certainly get a qualifying offer, meaning the team that signs him will have to give up their best unprotected pick. The research suggests that the pick the Cardinals would lose would be around $10M in Net Present Value (NPV). After that adjustment, this calculation still suggests a $100M contract over five years would be a bit of a discount.
If you think the price of WAR is more like $7M, his next five years are still worth $111M, just barely justifying a 5 year, $100M contract. Though to be honest I think it’s more likely the cost of WAR will be more than $8M this off-season than it is to be less.
He's not going to get paid based on my contract calculation though. Let’s look at what similar players have received. Jeff Todd of MLBTradeRumors.com broke down the various details of Turner’s free agency case a couple of months ago. In it he compared Turner to five other recent free agent cases: Ben Zobrist, Chase Headley, Daniel Murphy, Pablo Sandoval, and Adrian Beltre. Here is the deals they received, as well as their WAR produced in the three seasons preceding their free agency:
Only two of these five ended up with five year deals, so at first glance Turner may not either. However, Turner was more productive than everyone featured here except Headley, with Zobrist and Beltre getting pretty close. Beltre was the only player with a better walk year. Sandoval’s deal just looks awful compared to the other deals, even without considering the fact that he’s been worth -2 wins in the two years since signing his deal.
Adding some inflation to these numbers, and you can ballpark Turner’s market to somewhere in the $65M-$100M range, and four or five years. Hard to get more specific than that without knowing the opinions of the GM’s involved. The lower end of that, however, really looks like it could be a steal. The wild-card is that he currently plays for the Dodgers, and if they want to, they could make the bidding high at a moment’s notice. Overall, I would bet on it taking 5 years to sign Turner, but I wouldn't necessarily be surprised if he got four.
The appeal of Turner to the Cardinals is obvious: he would be projected to be the Cardinals’ best player. The team is overflowing with starter-caliber players, but they lack high-end talent. Next year, Turner would be about a two-win improvement over the in-house options.
The biggest turn-off is also obvious: Turner will almost certainly require draft pick compensation. However, the team would have to trade an infielder after signing Turner. As I discussed Saturday, the team could trade Jedd Gyorko for the best prospect package they could find, and his value should net the Cardinals something significantly better than the pick they would lose from signing Turner. That would help ease the pain of surrendering a pick.
The Cardinals could otherwise package Gyorko along with some prospects for a big upgrade in the outfield, but I don't think the timing is right to make a big move like that. The team will have cost themselves a pick and prospects and still would still only be fringe contender for the division in 2017. Signing Turner and trading Gyorko for prospects makes the team better in the near-term and long-term, coming only at the expense of cash. The team would still have to do something about the outfield, but the need for a big upgrade there is lowered after acquiring Turner.
Turner would offer better defense at third than the team had last year, in addition to a better bat than whomever the team would otherwise be playing. It also shifts Carpenter to first base, improving the defense there as well. With Aledmys Diaz and Kolten Wong up the middle, and a seemingly revitalized Yadier Molina behind the plate, Turner looks to me like the missing piece to a great all-around infield.
With Holliday off the books, other big contracts ending right around the corner, and a big new TV deal set to kick in soon, there is absolutely money for the Cardinals to spend. Of all the free agents available, Turner really does seem like the best fit. Here’s to hoping the Cardinals front office feels the same way.