The last time we saw Justin Turner, the sight of his unmasked visage marred the celebration of the Dodgers’ first World Series title in 32 years. Mere seconds after LA clinched a cathartic, decade-in-the-making title, the reality of the COVID pandemic interrupted the proceedings. Turner, who had been removed from the deciding Game Six after testing positive for COVID-19, left isolation and returned to the field, mostly sans mask, to mark the occasion with his teammates and friends.
Fortunately enough for Turner, MLB opted against discipline, and the veteran will not have a suspension hanging over his head as he tries to cash in one more time on the free agent market. In fact, it’s unlikely that Turner’s most recent actions on a baseball field will have any impact on his free agency. Though his latest public acts served as a stark reminder that sports are no respite at all from the actuality of a pandemic, Turner will presumably be evaluated on his merits as a third baseman.
Moreover, with Gio Urshela having just undergone surgery on his right elbow, the Yankees’ situation at the hot corner is suddenly a little shaky. Urshela projects to return around spring training, so it’s certainly possible the Yankees’ breakout star of the last two years comes back without issue. Yet with the ham-fisted Miguel Andújar the only other third baseman on the roster, it follows that the Yankees should keep an eye on the third base market as the winter progresses.
Turner is easily the strongest option at the position, even as he just turned 36 last month. Across the shortened season, Turner turned in a .307/.400/.460 slash line for the Dodgers, good for a 135 OPS+. Somehow, that didn’t even quite meet the standard he’d set for his time in LA; in over 3,000 plate appearances as a Dodger, Turner compiled a .302/.382/.503 line and a 139 OPS+. One could argue a healthy Turner is the finest all-around hitter on the market, with his combined OPS+ figure over the last three years trumping JT Realmuto, George Springer, and even DJ LeMahieu.
A healthy Turner hasn’t been quite a guarantee, it should be noted. He missed 18 games in 2020, mostly due to a left hamstring strain. He missed 27 games in 2019 with problems in the same hamstring, 59 games in 2018 with a variety of groin and wrist maladies, and 32 games in 2017 with, again, hamstring issues.
As he progresses through his mid-30s, it’s unlikely Turner’s injury problems will dissipate. The Yankee roster already has a number of veterans with injury concerns, and Turner would represent one more.
That said, much like the Yankees’ injury-prone stars, Turner’s play when healthy more than makes up for the four weeks or so on the IL you can all but pencil in. Currently, Steamer does project Turner to miss 32 games in 2021, but also to slash .282/.372/.480 and compile over three fWAR.
That kind of production easily merits an eight-figure annual salary over multiple years, but at Turner’s age and with the league making noise about cutting payroll, he likely won’t secure the bag that similarly excellent and older stars like Josh Donaldson and Nelson Cruz have in recent years. FanGraphs’ crowdsourcing measures pegged Turner’s contract at two years and $32 million, while MLB Trade Rumors forecasted just $24 million across the same timeframe.
Turner feels likely to sign the kind of deal that Charlie Morton signed with the Rays two years ago: a short, moderate AAV contract for an older, late-blooming star who continues to perform at a high level. If the Yankees force themselves under the first CBT threshold, there’s no chance they consider Turner, even at that modest price. If the club actually maintains its payroll from 2020, Turner could help them. The fit is clunky, but so is the fit for virtually any non-middle infielder the team could add to a roster that might already have eight or nine average or better hitters.
Ultimately, expect the Yankees not to give Turner a long look unless Urshela’s injury proves worse than feared. The fit isn’t smooth, and the team may even look at the last images of Turner flaunting COVID protocols and opt against adding him to a clubhouse that seemed to take the threat of the virus very seriously, in no small part because of their singular focus on winning a championship. Turner helped the Dodgers to their last title, but I wouldn’t expect him to contribute to the Yankees’ next.