The Dodgers announced they’ve declined their $16MM option on Justin Turner. The third baseman receives a $2MM buyout and heads to free agency.
Turner, 38 later this month, struggled to establish himself in his first few seasons in the big leagues, struggling in his time with the Orioles and Mets. He joined the Dodgers for the 2014 season and busted out with a .340/.404/.493 batting line, production that was 58% better than league average according to wRC+.
Since that time, he’s been a mainstay in Los Angeles, playing at least 103 games in each season outside of the shortened 2020 campaign. He’s continued to be a consistently above-average hitter, never finishing a season with a wRC+ below 123. His power has often been strong, though never elite. He’s hit 27 home runs three times but never more than that. His bat-to-ball skills are quite strong, however, as he’s never posted a strikeout rate higher than 18%, well below the typical league average, with this year’s ending up at 22.4%.
Twice in his Dodger career, Turner has reached free agency and re-signed with the club. After the 2016 season, they agreed to a four-year reunion that came with a $64MM guarantee. He returned to the open market after 2020 and then re-signed with the Dodgers again, this time for a two-year, $34MM deal with a club option for 2023. That option was for $16MM with a $2MM buyout.
For the first half of 2022, Turner’s age-37 season, it seemed like he would make the decision very easy for the Dodgers. Through the end of June, he was hitting a paltry .227/.298/.375, wRC+ of 90. However, he completely flipped the script in the second half, hitting .340/.412/.514 for a wRC+ of 163 from the start of July onwards. That left his combined line pretty close to his typical level of production, as the result was a .278/.350/.438 slash for a 123 wRC+. That surely gave the club much more to think about, but they have still opted for the $2MM buyout instead of the $16MM salary.
While it’s always possible he and the team could reunite at a different price point, it’s now possible that the club sees a lot of turnover in its infield. Shortstop Trea Turner is also heading to free agency, meaning the club is potentially subtracting two Turners from the left side of the infield. President of baseball operations Andrew Friedman recently spoke about how the club is open to having Gavin Lux slide over from second base to shortstop to take over for Trea, and it’s possible they feel the same way about having internal replacements take over the hot corner. Prospect Miguel Vargas made his MLB debut in 2022, and though he struggled in his limited MLB time, he has tremendous minor league numbers. In Triple-A this year, he hit .304/.404/.511 for a wRC+ of 129. If they were willing to let he and Lux take over the left side of the infield, they could then dedicate their resources to the pitching staff and center field, where Cody Bellinger is a non-tender candidate.
If Turner does have to find a new employer for 2023, he will have one thing working in his favor. He will easily be the top option on the third base free agent market. Since Nolan Arenado decided not to opt out of his deal with the Cardinals, the best remaining options are utility players like Brandon Drury, Jace Peterson or Aledmys Diaz. Those players all are intriguing in one way or another but none of them has the track record of consistent offensive production like Turner does. Given his age, Turner won’t be able to secure a lengthy pact, but that will also appeal to certain clubs that prefer to avoid those types of deals.