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Dodgers are playing the waiting game again with Justin Turner

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Colorado Rockies v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

The Dodgers still have moves to make this offseason, especially on the position-player side. Justin Turner, a beloved team leader and hometown hero who remained productive last year, remains a free agent.

Team officials have publicly said they’d love for Turner to return, but are the Dodgers taking for granted that Turner will still be available on their offseason timeline?

At the general manager meetings in Las Vegas in the first week of November, Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman expressed a desire for Turner to return for what would be a tenth season in Los Angeles, albeit in a pragmatic way. From Bill Plunkett at the Orange County Register:

“We’re still working through our payroll and other needs and trying to balance everything together as much as we can to figure out what that looks like. That’s what we’re working on right now.

“The priority is that we show up in Glendale and for him to be a part of what we’re doing next year. What exactly that looks like, we need time to work through.”

Later that week, on November 10, general manager Brandon Gomes expressed a similar sentiment on MLB Network.

“We know how talented Justin is, and our hope is that he’s with us in Glendale for spring training,” Gomes said. “Now how we’re finally going to go about that, we still need to discuss further and see what makes sense overall for us.”

Later that day, the Dodgers declined Turner’s $16-million club option for 2023, instead paying him a $2-million buyout.

Turner in 2022 had another productive year at the plate, hitting .278/.350/.438 with 36 doubles, 13 home runs. It was his lowest slugging percentage since joining the Dodgers, and his lowest on-base percentage since 2016, but on the whole it was his ninth consecutive season with at least a 123 wRC+; in other words, on offense Turner was 23 percent better than an average hitter.

There are natural causes for concern, with Turner now 38 years old and that Hhe played nearly as much designated hitter (61 starts) as third base (66 starts) last year. Given the public comments by Friedman and Gomes, it’s fair to summarize that the Dodgers want Turner back, but presumably at a price lower than $14 million for one year, the difference between his 2023 club option salary and the buyout.

Projections at the start of the offseason for Turner were all in the same range, with Ben Clemens at FanGraphs ($14 million), MLB Trade Rumors ($14 million), and Kiley McDaniel at ESPN ($11 million) all predicting a one-year free agent deal for Turner. The median crowdsource projection at FanGraphs was one year, $12 million.

Turner this offseason has already received an offer from the Marlins, per Barry Jackson and Craig Mish of the Miami Herald. Turner is among the Twins’ free agent targets, per Dan Hayes at The Athletic on Friday. Jon Heyman at the New York Post last week mentioned the Diamondbacks as one of Turner’s suitors.

Whether the market lifts Turner above his $14-million projection on a one-year deal, or perhaps gets him two years, it’s pretty clear that he would still fit under the Dodgers’ implicit quest of getting below the $233-million threshold for paying competitive balance tax in 2023.

The team would never specifically state this as a goal, of course, but their actions this winter suggest relative austerity is the path they’ve chosen. Sure, the Dodgers would consider paying the luxury tax if it meant adding the right premium player, but given what’s left among the free agents, shortstop Dansby Swanson is the only one who might qualify for such distinction.

After Noah Syndergaard’s one-year, $13-million deal was finalized on Friday, the Dodgers’ payroll for competitive balance tax purposes is roughly $197 million. That leaves $36 million before reaching the threshold, and if we allow wiggle room for in-season additions they probably have between $25-30 million left to spend this offseason.

Turner, for his part, knows this, citing the luxury tax as a consideration for the Dodgers in his discussions with the team, in an interview with Petros and Money on AM 570 radio on November 17.

“I think they’re trying to figure out what they need to do, and prioritize what’s best for them,” Turner said. “Once those chips fall, we’ll see where I stand, so I guess I gotta be patient.”

What’s clear is the Dodgers still need multiple position players, given that eight of the 18 position players on the 40-man roster have between zero and six days of major league service time, and three position players on the roster — catcher Diego Cartaya, infielders Jorbit Vivas and Eddys Leonard — have yet to play above High-A and are unlikely to see time in the majors this roster.

So they functionally have 15 major league position players, with roster rules requiring at least 13 position players active at all times. More additions are coming, no doubt.

I think they will add at least one starting-level bat this offseason, with the position of said player determining the roles of some others. If they sign a shortstop, for instance, Gavin Lux can stay at second base. If they sign an outfielder, Lux would likely play shortstop and Chris Taylor would probably end up playing more second base than outfield.

To date, the only position players the Dodgers have added this offseason are light-hitting utility infielder Yonny Hernández and veteran outfielder Jason Heyward, the latter on a minor league contract.

Turner can still fit within any of these plans, even if he plays more at DH than third base. Turner’s return might mean Max Muncy plays an occasional second base, if only to make room for Miguel Vargas to widen his runway with opportunities for playing time at third base, DH, and left field.

I suppose the question becomes can the Dodgers add a starter-level bat and Justin Turner, or would Turner be the only starter-level bat they add?

The Dodgers’ 40-man roster is now full, meaning that any further additions this offseason would require a corresponding roster move to make room. Injured pitchers Walker Buehler, Blake Treinen, and J.P. Feyereisen can’t be placed on the 60-day injured list until the start of spring training in mid-February.

That’s when the Dodgers signed Turner the last time he was a free agent, two years ago. He returned to the team on a two-year, $34-million contract finalized on February 19, after being courted by the Brewers. The corresponding move to add Turner then was pitcher Caleb Ferguson — who was recovering from Tommy John surgery and would miss all of the 2021 season — landing on the 60-day injured list.

If the Dodgers opt for that same timeline again, will Turner still be available?