Nationals Refuse To Turn(er) The Page
Constructing a dynasty roster requires foresight. It requires patience, calculation and perseverance. It requires the ability to plan for the future and look for the stars of tomorrow, before they become the “can’t miss” prospects of the present. Every now and then the heavens part, the stars align, and the dynasty prospect you’ve been hanging on to finally gets a clear path to a starting role in the big leagues. Then, out of nowhere, the front office will sign the likes of Daniel Murphy and Stephen Drew while installing Danny Espinosa as the teams starting shortstop. Such is the story of Trea Turner, the 22-year-old blue chip prospect for the Washington Nationals.
The San Diego Padres 2014 first-round selection, Turner (along with right-handed pitcher Joe Ross) was immediately jettisoned to Washington in a larger deal for Wil Myers by newly minted GM A.J. Preller last offseason. He responded in his first season with the Nationals by hitting .322/.368/.471 between Double-A and Triple-A, before making his Major League debut in September. Despite posting uninspiring numbers (.225/.295/.325) in just 44 plate appearances, he’s the clear-cut shortstop of the future in Washington, which makes it all the more frustrating that he is unlikely to be their present-day answer up the middle entering 2016.
It was no secret that Ian Desmond, who manned the position for the past five seasons, would be departing via free agency this offseason, which left the former N.C. State product as his logical successor. Yet, it didn’t happen, much to the frustration of his current dynasty owners. Clearly, the Nationals decision to seek short-term alternatives isn’t an indictment on Turner’s long-term status, but rather it’s a sign that they’re not ready to commit to him right now.
One of the main reasons why might be sitting in the dugout. Dusty Baker has a lengthy history of favoring veterans, even at the expense of developing young talent. We should have seen this coming. Not only did the Nationals sign Murphy, who transformed into a modern day Babe Ruth virtually overnight during the Mets improbable World Series run, but they also inked a well-traveled veteran infielder in Drew. Not only has he hit below the Mendoza Line each of the past two seasons, but his most memorable moment during that stretch may have been when he signed with the Red Sox mid-season, and displaced Xander Bogaerts at shortstop in the second half of 2014. In addition to the rash of veteran infielder signings, Washington also surprisingly committed to Espinosa as their potential starting shortstop in 2016.
Instead of vilifying the Nationals for destroying Turner’s immediate fantasy future, let’s take a step back and figure out if there’s a valid reason for shying away from a young player with so much promise and upside in favor of Espinosa.
Throughout Turner’s collegiate career, there was buzz that he could be a candidate to go first overall in the 2014 MLB Draft. Turner did nothing to quell the talk, but was soon displaced in scouts’ hearts by his teammate Carlos Rodon. The Padres still believed in Turner enough to take him with the 13th overall pick. Despite struggling out of the gate in Low-A in his professional debut that summer, Turner has consistently hit above .300 at every stop along the way, with enough pop to keep you honest (nine home runs over three levels in 2015). He has also been an asset on the base paths, swiping 31 bases in 39 attempts in 2015.
Turner’s strong contact rate and high batting averages could provide good opportunity to produce stolen bases at a similar level in the big leagues. While minor league numbers are never a perfect indicator for success in the big leagues (see: Marte, Andy or Wood, Brandon), it wouldn’t be hard to envision Turner hitting .270 with double-digit home runs and 25-plus stolen bases in the future. Those numbers would be comparable to Elvis Andrus (.258 BA/7 HR/25 SB), who finished number three on the ESPN player rater last season. Now, I’m not saying Turner is immediately the third best shortstop in the league, but I am saying that there is reason to be excited.
Espinosa, now 28 years old, burst on to the scene in 2011, hitting 21 homers and stealing 17 bases in his rookie season. He followed up that performance with 17 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 2012. His batting averages (.236 and .247, respectively) left much to be desired, but if a free swinger like Espinosa could produce power and speed, you can probably afford to take the batting average hit. The problem, however, was that the power and speed combo was not long for this world. The wheels came off, both metaphorically and literally, in 2013. Since that season, he’s only stolen 14 bases total and hit 24 home runs while hitting .217, which is, um, not great. He did cut his strikeout rate by eight percent in 2015, but that only lowered it to 25.7%, which is also not great. Further, while Espinosa came up as a shortstop in the organization, he’s only played the position 59 games in his six-year career, making it somewhat difficult to gauge whether this swap is mainly for defensive purposes.
So the answer seems pretty clear, right? In the NL East, with the Mets potentially falling back to the pack slightly, every game is crucial, so you’d want your best players available as much as possible, right? The Cubs may have been able to hold the fort for the first couple weeks of the 2015 season to let Kris Bryant push back his service time get a little more seasoning, but what if they had missed out on that second wild card by one game? Could the Nationals afford to take that same gamble?
Then it dawned on me. This isn’t the time to clench fists and rue Baker and the Nationals for delaying Turner’s coronation. This is an opportunity for dynasty owners to invest in Turner at a discount. Given how recently he was drafted, he was never entrenched on the annual top 100 prospects lists as some of his counterparts. He didn’t dazzle in his first stint in the big leagues, but he does have a path to every day playing time, and it only goes through Espinosa and technically Drew, who might offer as much resistance as a plastic bag against a gust of wind. The glut of middle infielders that the Nationals have brought in could actually drive down Turner’s value and make for a tasty buy-low opportunity in some leagues, especially if he starts the year in Triple-A. So go out and check to see if your league’s Turner owner had his hopes dashed and is willing to sell at a discounted rate. Savvy dynasty owners will know better than to ship him off, because even if the present-day sky is stormy, his long-term outlook is brighter than ever.