Last week the Tampa Bay Rays made a run at signing Marcell Ozuna before he re-signed with the Atlanta Braves, and that’s not the only big fish the Rays have tried to reel in after shedding the salaries of Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, as they were serious players for Corey Kluber and are still active in the market.
If the Rays were willing to make a significant offer to Ozuna, should the Rays be interested in the best remaining free agent Justin Turner as well?
Turner has been nothing short of amazing since being picked up by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2014. He has hit .302/.382/.503 and put up a 141 wRC+. His 141 wRC+ ranks him 11th among all hitters who have received at least 2,000 plate appearances.
Turner’s 2020 line of .307/.400/.460 and 140 wRC+ is in line what he’s done the past half a decade where he has consistently posted 130-150 wRC+.
Turner’s a contact guy who also hits for hits above average power. His 90.3 mph exit velocity posted in 2020 was the 40th best in the majors (100 batted ball events minimum) and tied with Bryce Harper.
While Turner doesn’t have the outlier season Ozuna had in 2020 he has consistently been a great bat that would instantly become one of the Rays most reliable bats. ZiPS projects a .278/.363/456 line and 118 wRC+ in 2021. Steamer projects a .279/.369/.473 line and 122 wRC+.
The downside is Turner is 36 years old and might be slowing down on defense. This can make this a rare opportunity to sign an older player that is performing without having to go to the amount of years that could make them uncomfortable.
MLBTradeRumors predicted Turner to receive a two year, $24MM deal and FanGraphs predicted a two year deal in the $26-32MM range.
It’s rare that the Rays have a real opportunity to make a meaningful upgrade in free agency, but two years ago they brought in an aging vet on a middling two year contract when they signed Charlie Morton to a two year $30MM deal, and it worked out well. Mike Axisa of CBS Sports thinks so as well, calling the Rays sleepers and writing of Turner, “Consider him the Charlie Morton of position players.”
Perhaps the Rays can be so lucky again.
So where can Turner fit on the roster?
Turner was a positive defender at third base earlier in his career; however, his -4 DRS and -7.4 UZR over the past two seasons suggest he might not be that anymore. This is in the neighborhood of the -6 DRS and -0.7 UZR that Yandy Diaz has posted at third base over the last two seasons in roughly half the innings.
Turner performed well in the high leverage of the World Series on defense, but his OOA and Sprint Speed per the Statcast metrics above are clearly in decline. You could make the playing time work much in the same way as with Ozuna, where you would incorporate the designated hitter in the infield instead of the outfield on some occasion, perhaps when Ji-Man Choi is benched vs lefties.
The last time an aging hitter of this quality was available, the Rays were unwilling to go to two years to sign Nelson Cruz early in the offseason. This time around the pandemic has left Turner available in February, and the Rays do seem to have a little more they can spend.
Could he be the Rays shot to add the impact bat they’ve been looking for?