From the outside looking in, the Dodgers have clearly prioritized their bullpen this winter: trading for Corey Knebel, re-resigning Blake Treinen, signing injured Tommy Kahnle to a two-year deal. Behind the scenes, however, their offseason efforts have focused on finding a right-handed hitting infielder, writes the Athletic’s Jim Bowden.
On its face, this tracks. They have a need: right-handed infielders Justin Turner and Kiké Hernández are free agents, and of their remaining infielders, only Chris Taylor bats from the right side. Additionally, reports place right-handed infielders firmly in their sights. We know they’re making a run at DJ LeMahieu, one of the top right-handed infielders in the game period, and on the trade front, everyone and their mother seems to thinks Nolan Arenado is destined for the Dodgers (except – and this seems relevant – the Rockies).
But it’s somewhat maddening that the Dodgers haven’t just brought Turner back. He’s been the face of the franchise, a fan favorite, a clutch and steadying presence, and a hugely productive producer over his seven years with the team. This is circumstantial and narrative, but it’s a fact nevertheless: So long as the Turner has been at the hot corner in Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers have won the division every year.
Together, Los Angeles and Turner just won the first World Series of this long and dynastic era of Dodger baseball. The economic landscape in the game is strained, but this is the Dodgers, and they just won the World Series, and they need a right-handed infielder: make the deal, right?
Besides, he’s from Long Beach, he went to high school in Lakewood and college in Fullerton. Turner and L.A. is a proven fit.
The Dodgers, however, aren’t quite so sentimental. Turner might not be either. He’s reportedly seeking a four-year deal, which is a non-starter for a 36-year-old. For the Dodgers, a reunion with Turner is a no-brainer under the assumption that they can get him on a short-term deal. Four years isn’t going to happen.
Many in the industry project Turner as a candidate for rapid decline. Bowden writes, “Turner is now 36 years old and the analytics scream that his performance decline is at the high-risk level.” He’s not alone in anticipating a downturn in performance.
Turner’s whiff rate on fastballs jumped from 15.4 percent to 20.4 percent, and that’s a concern. Turner’s .153 ISO was his lowest isolated power mark since his first season in Los Angeles – and it wasn’t close. There was some slippage defensively – his success rate fell from 90% in 2019 to 84% in 2020 – though Statcast’s estimated marks suggest a less precipitous decline from 89 percent to 87 percent. Another point for the detractors, Turner runs less well than ever, finishing in the 18th percentile by sprint speed, down from 33rd percentile in 2019 and the 43rd percentile in 2018.
To soften the blow, one might consider that if the worst part of his game – which has never been an asset – is the biggest area of concern, then the alarm bells might be premature. Of course, none of that changes the fact that he’s entering his age-36 season. In the end, decline comes for everyone.
There’s plenty of cause to be bullish on Turner, however, beginning with his 140 wRC+ in 2020. His 10.3 percent walk rate was right around league average and the third-best mark of his career. He put the ball in play with an excellent 14.9 percent strikeout rate.
Not only was he putting the ball in play, but he wasn’t making cheap contact. His exit velocity in 2020 exactly matched his mark from 2019. His 44 percent hard hit percentage was a career high. His 11.2 percent barrel rate set a career high by a margin of 2.4 percent, trouncing the MLB average of 6.4 percent.
Lastly, and I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but it’s safe to assume he’s in the 98th percentile both for beard length and fullness. Not to mention, baseball-wise, he finished in the 95th percentile for xwOBA.
On the other hand, LeMahieu is very good, and if they can add him to Corey Seager, Max Muncy, Gavin Lux, and Chris Taylor in the infield, that’s something the Dodgers have to consider. There are other options on the free agent market as well, though not a ton that hit from the right side. Cesar Hernandez, Freddy Galvis, Jonathan Villar, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jurickson Profar, and Marwin Gonzalez are switch-hitters who could fill Kiké’s role. Only Andrelton Simmons and Marcus Semien really fit the right-handed hitting infielder mold the Dodgers’ seek.
With a payroll near $198MM, the Dodgers’ have a decent chance to exceed the luxury tax mark of $210MM, and that’s a line they’ve avoided in recent years. Turner should definitely keep them closer to the line than LeMahieu. But if the difference is marginal – say, $25MM AAV versus $20MM AAV – then it’s hard to argue against pursuing the current American League batting champion, even if Turner does rake again in 2021.