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Figuring out the free agent market for Justin Turner

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3 productive seasons in LA has Turner in a position to cash in this winter

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Los Angeles Dodgers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

One of the Dodgers’ largest decisions this offseason is whether to bring back third baseman Justin Turner, who will be a free agent later this week, the morning after the World Series ends.

Turner, who turns 32 in three weeks, hit .275/.339/.493 with a .353 wOBA, a 124 OPS+, a 124 rWC+ with 34 doubles. He tied for the team lead in home runs (27) and RBI (90), and is a finalist for the National League Gold Glove Award at third base. Turner is popular with fans and has emerged as a leader in the clubhouse.

In short, he is someone the Dodgers would love to have back. It’s no secret that Turner, who grew up in southern California and played college ball at Cal State Fullerton, would like to stay. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out his market.

Competition no more

Martin Prado, entering his age-33 season, signed a three-year, $40 million extension with the Marlins in October before hitting the market. Though rather than helping to define the market for Turner’s services, Prado’s signing removed a competitor at third base this winter, perhaps helping Turner even more.

Prado is an intriguing comparable player, as he has been one of the more quietly productive players in baseball in recent years. He has been a regular for eight years, settling in at third base after years of playing left field and second base as well. He averaged between 3 WAR (FanGraphs) version and 3.5 WAR (Baseball-Reference) during that span, including 2.9-3.4 the last three seasons.

Turner, a year younger than Prado, also showed versatility in his career though more on the infield. Though Turner has only qualified for the batting title once (2016), compared to each of the last eight seasons for Prado, Turner has still averaged 4.3-4.4 WAR over the last three seasons, and heads into free agency on a high note after his best season by WAR, 4.9 per Baseball-Reference or 5.6 per FanGraphs.

The third base market is tough to decipher, with several standouts at the hot corner —Josh Donaldson, Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado — still years away from free agency. Todd Frazier is a year away from free agency as well.

Early extensions

Two $100 million men might provide a goal of sorts for Turner, but Evan Longoria and Kyle Seager need to be examined further.

Seattle Mariners v Los Angeles Dodgers
Will Justin Turner be able to eclipse the $18.63 million average of the free agent years bought out by Kyle Seager’s contract with the Mariners.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Longoria is a year younger than Turner, and is due $99 million over the next six seasons, or if his 2023 option is exercised he would make $107 million over seven years, per Cot’s Contracts. This might seem like the perfect comp for Turner, with Longoria averaging between 3.4 (B-R) and 4.0 (FanGraphs) WAR the last three years (Turner is at 4.3-4.4). Longoria even reached the deal with Andrew Friedman, then with the Rays, carrying the comp even further.

But the caveat here is that Longoria signed his six-year, $100 million contract extension (there was a signing bonus that accounted for the other $1 million) way back in November 2012. Four years ago.

Seager, brother of Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, signed his extension in December 2014, following a three-year run of performance similar to Turner. Seager hit .268/.334/.454 with 26 home home runs, a 126 OPS+ and 127 wRC+ in 2014, and averaged between 4.1 (B-R) and 4.3 (FG) WAR from 2012-14.

But Seager’s contract covers his ages 27-33, five years younger than Turner now. In addition, Seager’s deal included three arbitration seasons and bought out what would have been four free agent years. Those latter years are the ones to look at.

Seager from 2018-21, his ages 30-33, Seager will earn $74.5 million, an average of $18.63 million per year.

The old friend

Adrian Beltre signed a contract extension with the Rangers back in April, paying him $36 million for two years, $18 million each in 2017 and 2018, his age-38 and -39 years.

Turner is the best Dodgers third baseman since Beltre left after the 2004 season.

Beltre on one hand serves as an upper limit of sorts, as he is the gold standard at the hot corner. The future Hall of Famer averaged between 5.5 (FanGraphs) and 6.3 (Baseball-Reference) WAR from 2011-2015. But Beltre’s contract covers a period starting at six years older than Turner, and it wasn’t signed on the open market, where competition would have driven Beltre’s price even higher.

Open market deals

A relatively recent contract that was signed on the open market was by Chase Headley, who inked a four-year, $52 million contract with the Yankees two years ago. Headley was a year younger than Turner at the time of his free agency, entering his age-31 season in 2015.

Headley averaged between 4.0 (B-R) and 4.4 (FG) WAR in the five years (2010-14) before his free agency, including strong defense at third base. Though on the surface Headley didn’t have the offensive profile of Turner — peaking at 31 home runs in 2012 while leading the majors with 115 RBI, but with no other years above 13 homers before hitting free agency — upon further inspection they are closer than I thought.

Headley from 2012-14 hit .262/.352/.429 with a .344 wOBA, a 123 OPS+ and 122 wRC+.

Turner from 2014-16 hit .296/.364/.492 with a .368 wOBA, a 136 OPS+ and 138 wRC+.

Turner does still have the advantage, and again is entering free agency on a better launch season. Headley hit just .243/.328./372 in 2014 with 13 home runs between the Padres and Yankees, a 102 OPS+ and 103 wRC+.

Another contract signed two years ago that was initially forgotten was that of Pablo Sandoval, who has essentially vanished since signing for five years and $95 million with the Red Sox. Sandoval was a disaster in the first year of his deal with Boston (.245/.292/.366, below replacement level), and had his 2016 wiped out after just three games by shoulder surgery.

Sandoval’s reputation was buoyed by standout seasons in 2009 and 2011, but was rather ordinary in his three years heading into free agency, hitting .280/.335/.424, a 116 OPS+, averaging between 2.5-2.6 WAR per year from 2012-14.

But Sandoval had age on his side, entering his age-28 year in 2015 with Boston, four years younger than Turner now.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Los Angeles Dodgers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The suitors

The Dodgers don’t really have much of an in-house solution at third base if Turner signs elsewhere. They could in theory move Howie Kendrick to third base, but that’s if second base is otherwise occupied, and would mean a second major position shift for Kendrick in two years. And that’s before considering the gaping hole in the batting order without Turner.

Just eye-balling contending teams, the Dodgers’ biggest competition for Turner might come from their chief rivals, the Giants. San Francisco has Eduardo Nunez for one more year, but could move him or second baseman Joe Panik to a utility role to make room for Turner.

Giants third basemen in 2016 hit a collective .266/.320/.394, 27th in MLB in OPS (.713) and 24th in wRC+ (93).

The Cardinals infield seems full with Jhonny Peralta, Jedd Gyorko, Matt Carpenter and Aledmys Diaz, among others, and several other National League teams are set at the hot corner — Colorado (Arenado), Arizona (Jake Lamb), Chicago (Kris Bryant), Miami (Prado), Pittsburgh (David Freese, Jung Ho Kang) and Washington (Anthony Rendon).

The Braves might want to make a big splash heading into their new ballpark in 2017, but would Turner want to join a team not all that close to contention?

The Mets have David Wright under contract for four more seasons but has played 75 games in the last two years. First base is also an option, but would Turner want to return to New York after the same front office non-tendered him three years ago, then planted stories besmirching his effort after kicking him out the door?

Most of the American League contenders seem set at third base as well — Texas (Beltre), Seattle (Seager), Houston (Alex Bregman, Yulieski Gurriel), Toronto (Donaldson), New York (Headley), Cleveland (Jose Ramirez), Detroit (Nick Castellanos), Kansas City (Mike Moustakas), Chicago (Frazier) — though the designated hitter and/or first base could create potential openings for a few of those teams.

Maybe the Red Sox could decide to upgrade at third over Travis Shaw, but that would probably depend what Boston expects from Sandoval going forward.

Conclusion

All it takes is two teams to create a bidding war, so Turner should be able to blow away the averages of Headley and Prado, settling in somewhere near Longoria’s average salary. That Turner is older than all of the comps mentioned here except Prado means he probably won’t get the six years that represents Longoria’s remaining deal.

But being one of the top bats on the free agent market — arguably just a notch below the powerful trio of Yoenis Cespedes, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, and better defensively then all of them — gets Turner a market boost.

I think it takes at least four years to land Turner, with the qualifying offer of $17.2 million seeming like a reasonable average over the life of his contract.

My guess — and this is just a guess — is that Turner signs for four years and $70 million, with an option of some sort for a fifth year. And the most likely location is back in Los Angeles with the Dodgers.