Two days after closing a five-year, $80-million deal with Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers have brought the last of their three key free agents—Rich Hill (three years, $48 million) being the other—back into the fold, completing a four-year, $64 million contract with Justin Turner on Tuesday, according to ESPN’s Jim Bowden. But where the big-spending Dodgers paid a top-of-the-market price for their All-Star closer, they appear to have gotten a significant bargain on their third baseman.
The 32-year-old Turner is coming off his first full season as a regular and a middle-of-the-order threat. He set career highs in virtually every counting-stat category, tying for the Dodgers’ team lead with 27 home runs and batting .275/.339/.493 for a 124 OPS+ in 622 plate appearances. Those numbers conceal a sluggish first two months (.235/.335/.343 with three homers) as he returned from left knee surgery, which he underwent in October 2015; he not only had loose bodies removed from the knee, but he also had a microfracture procedure to facilitate the growth of new cartilage. From June 1 onward, the raking redhead mashed at a .292/.341/.556 clip with 24 homers. Depending upon which flavor of Wins Above Replacement you use, his combination of that offense and strong defense (+7 Defensive Runs Saved, +14 Ultimate Zone Rating) not only propelled him to a career high in WAR but also placed him among the league’s top 10. Via Baseball-Reference, his 5.0 WAR ranked 10th; via FanGraphs, his 5.6 WAR placed fifth.
Either way, it was Turner's third strong season in a row since being non-tendered by the Mets in December 2013 for a perceived lack of hustle and signed to a minor-league deal by the Dodgers. He had hit a modest .267/.327/.371 for a 95 OPS+ in four seasons as a utility infielder in New York, but he’s reinvented himself since, reworking his swing with instructor Doug Latta (primarily by narrowing his stance and speeding up his leg kick) and hitting .296/.364/.492 for a 136 OPS+ as a Dodger. He’s also improved his conditioning and emerged as a clubhouse leader and a favorite of manager Dave Roberts, who praised him back in August, saying, “J.T. is the epitome of what we’re trying to do going forward, the type of baseball player he is, what he stands for. Those are the guys you win with.”
Turner spent time at all four infield spots in both 2014 and ’15 before unseating Juan Uribe as the regular third baseman in late May of the latter season. Via that strong glove work, he’s averaged 4.4 bWAR per year over the past three seasons, and his 13.1 WAR over that span is tops among Dodgers position players and 27th among all position players, ahead of oft-injured stars Giancarlo Stanton (12.7) and Bryce Harper (12.6) as well as fellow free agents Jose Bautista (12.2) and Edwin Encarnacion (12.0).
Like that latter pair, once Turner rejected a qualifying offer—meaning the he would have cost his new team a top draft pick—he found a limited market for his services despite being by far the best third baseman available. His age, short track record and openness to staying put in Los Angeles (he’s a Long Beach, Calif., native) may have been factors. The Giants, looking to return Eduardo Nunez to a utility role, expressed interest, but their signing of Mark Melancon to a similar contract (four years, $62 million) is thought to have taken them out of the running. The Cardinals reportedly expressed interest as well despite a crowded infield, but their five-year, $82.5 million deal with Dexter Fowler was a higher priority. While the Dodgers explored other alternatives such as a trade for the White Sox’s Todd Frazier, the two sides ultimately got down to business.
Four years and $64 million is life-changing money for Turner, but it’s only the fourth-largest dollar commitment for a position player this winter, and below severalindustryprojections in terms of length and dollar value. It’s worth looking at his case in the light of our What's He Really Worth model, which takes into account a player’s last three years of performance, estimates of the market cost for a win, the rate of inflation and an age-related decline for an estimate—or several, depending upon how we tweak the parameters.
In the model Cliff Corcoran and I had used for the past year, we began with a 5/4/3 weighted average WAR for the player’s last three seasons to project his next season value, then built in a 0.5 win-per-year decline, a 2016 value of $6.85 million per win and an inflation rate of 5.4%. Even if I plug in a more aggressive decline of 0.7 wins per year, it looks like the Dodgers got a very good deal.
Whoa. That model suggests that Turner, who made all of $5.1 million in 2016, might be worth more than $100 million over the next four years even if he can’t live up to his best full season. A deal along the lines of Yoenis Cespedes’s four-year, $110 million deal from the Mets wouldn’t have been out of line despite the differing perceptions of the two players.
When I ran that model for Cespedes (who’s a year younger) upon news of his recent signing and used just a 0.5-win-per-year decline, the yield was 14.3 WAR and $111.2 million. At that point, I also tried a more conservative model recently introduced by Tom Tango, who invented the weighted-average Marcel projection system (“the most basic forecasting system you can have, that uses as little intelligence as possible”) that I use here. Tango’s model uses a 6/3/1 weighting for a player’s past three seasons’ WAR, a 20% regression in the first year (0.8 times that weighted WAR) and an age-related falloff based on 0.4 WAR per year, adding 0.1 WAR for each year under 30 (so 0.3 for a 29-year-old) and subtracting 0.1 WAR for each year over 30. A 6/3/1 weighting for Turner produces a baseline WAR of 4.5, which gets knocked down to 3.6 in the first year.
Even that more conservative estimate produces a contract value that’s 26% more than what Turner received—still quite a bargain. Eyeballing it, he needs to produce only about 8.5 WAR over four years to be worth his $64 million.
Then again, it’s worth remembering that every big-dollar contract the Dodgers hand out is one that further cements their position above the luxury tax threshold, and they’ll pay steeper penalties under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement than before. For 2017, the tax threshold remains $189 million, and the Dodgers will pay a tax that, according to the Los Angeles Times’Bill Shaikin, “will be an average of what the team would have paid under the old system and what it would pay under the new system.” On a $250 million payroll, that would come to a total tax of $33.585 million, up from $30.5 million for the same payroll this year.
Obviously, the Dodgers aren’t shy about spending money, but the problem with doing so at this level is when the team uses it as a reason to swear off an expensive but necessary addition. Last winter, the Dodgers passed on Johnny Cueto and Zack Greinke, who went to division rivals San Francisco and Arizona, respectively. The Dodgers struggled all season to replace Greinke’s innings amid a rotation that was short of healthy bodies, including, for 2 1/2 months, that of Clayton Kershaw. They picked up Hill at the trade deadline and re-signed him last week, but he’s not the 200-inning workhorse that the other two pitchers are.
Given their booming farm system and the sunsets of several big contracts—Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford after 2017, Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Yasiel Puig and Hyun-jin Ryu after '18—the Dodgers will have a chance to reset their tax rate. But until they do, finding bargains like the one they got for Turner is the necessary antidote to moves like paying top dollar for Jansen.