‘It’s a never-ending process’: How Trea Turner evolved into a potential $300 million free agent

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There are a number of reasons Trea Turner is poised to get one of the biggest contracts in free agency this winter, with a chance to crack $300 million.

He is instantly recognizable for his trademark slide. He won a World Series ring in 2019 with the Washington Nationals and his Los Angeles Dodgers had the best record in baseball in 2022. Perhaps most importantly, he has posted the second-most WAR in baseball since 2019 at 20.0 — trailing only Aaron Judge‘s 22.3.

While all of that certainly impacts Turner’s potential for a huge payday, the path he took to get here could tell us something unique about his future with whichever team lands him this offseason.

The Market

As I noted in my two breakdowns of Judge’s market, projecting a deal for top free agents is difficult because there are so few comparable players. The best method is to use the best data available to triangulate a comp, then round up or down based on the vibes of the current market.

To start, let’s look at some relevant comps’ performance in the three years leading into free agency, with an asterisk for periods that include the shortened 2020 season. Here’s the top tier of position players in this year’s free agent crop (ages are on Opening Day in first year of a new contract):

Judge: 18.0* WAR, 30 years old

Turner: 15.8* WAR, 29 years old

Dansby Swanson: 12.1* WAR, 29 years old

Xander Bogaerts: 12.1* WAR, 30 years old

Carlos Correa: 11.8* WAR, 28 years old

I’ve ordered 10 other recent comps descending by guaranteed money:

While it’s a bit blunt to just use WAR and age, those numbers tell us at least half of what we need to know to project a contract. Of this year’s crop, I think it’s pretty clear that Turner is a more attractive signing than the bottom four names — he looks pretty similar to Rendon in 2020, and his WAR numbers are on par with the top five, though Turner’s age separates him from that group.

Using corner infielder Rendon’s $245 million guarantee as a model, it’s easy to see why Turner’s versatility and athleticism should sweeten the pot. Sure enough, most projections, including mine (8 years, $272 million), fall above $245 million but below the $300-million-plus deals in the top five.

Without any current analysis on the market itself — none of the top-tier free agents have signed yet — it’s too early to know if this year’s top free agents will get above or below projected figures. But indicators like league-wide revenues and interest from clubs suggest the bidding for top players is at least as competitive as it was last year. The big difference in action is that we’re missing last year’s impetus for retail-priced, early signings (like Seager and Semien) — the looming labor stoppage. Based on what we’ve seen so far, though, those recent comps still appear to be valid.

The Player

In order to reach the next level of analysis, we need to get more player specific, which is why I spoke to Turner directly about his path and what makes him unique. The first thing most fans know about Turner is that silky slide:

Turner being so efficient in his movement is no surprise as his athleticism has always been what stands out the most. Using StatCast’s Sprint Speed metric, which essentially measures peak speed on the basepaths, you can see that Turner is near the top of the charts.

Among regular starters in 2022, Turner was second in sprint speed — to 22-year-old Bobby Witt Jr, seven years younger. The next regular of Turner’s age or older is Mike Trout. The list is mostly comprised of players in their early-to-mid-20s for a good reason. Age is important for speed, as it degrades over time:

Despite that, Turner’s speed indicators have stayed steady, with his sprint speed in the top 1% of the league in all eight seasons of his major league career.

He crushed the rest of the league in “bolts” — any run at 30 feet per second — this season, which measures the threshold for elite speed. He had more than double the bolts of anyone else in 2021 — and exactly double the bolts of the second-best player in 2020.

It isn’t just that Turner has a top speed among the fastest in baseball, he also gets to that speed far more often than anyone else does.

Turner said he has an overarching principle that has helped him maintain his speed while gaining more power, and it applied to his fielding as well: “I think slowing down for me in general might be good and I don’t mean slowing down like getting slower or older, but calmer…being able to learn how to be efficient is almost more important than just being out of control and trying to move as fast as I can.”

We’d previously chatted when he was a sophomore at N.C. State and the biggest question about his game was power. Most scouts thought he’d never hit more than 10-15 homers in the big leagues — a range he has cleared four times and would’ve a fifth if 2020 had been a 162-game season. He remembers the moment in pro ball that it became clear he had more power in the tank.

“In 2016 when I got to the big leagues, I hit a lot of homers in a short period of time in my rookie year [13 homers in 73 games] and kinda realized that I can do it, it’s in there,” Turner said. “It’s a matter of being consistent. I think in the minor leagues with the ballparks, the bats, and just everything in general, I didn’t think I knew I could hit for power. It’s not an excuse, I think I didn’t realize it was in there until 2016.”

Then in his second and third seasons, his power numbers stalled before spiking again in 2019. “In 2017 and 2018, I think I struggled a little bit because I was almost trying to drive the ball too much, or doing it incorrectly. In 2019, [Nationals hitting coach] Kevin Long really helped me figure out how to do that properly. From there on, I feel like it’s become more consistent.”

Long is now the hitting coach for the Phillies, one reason why the National League champions have been tied to Turner in free agency.

The Path

The last piece of Turner’s unique free agency is how he got here. From that list of the top deals of the past three years, Machado and Harper were two of the best prep prospects in recent memory. Lindor, Rendon and Bryant also went in the top eight picks in the draft. Most of them were identified as elite prospects by their freshman or sophomore year in high school. Turner told me years ago that his dream college, Florida State, eventually told him late in his recruiting process it wasn’t interested.

When I asked him last week if he had a player he models himself after, or one he particularly admires, Turner took the question in a direction I wasn’t anticipating. “I don’t know if this is going to sound weird but I actually root for the favorite all the time, because I think winning is really, really hard…I appreciate Tom Brady winning Super Bowls, LeBron winning championships, and teams like the Golden State Warriors being great every year because it’s not easy, it’s really hard to win, and then come back the next season and win again and continuously do it. I admire a lot of athletes and teams from afar but I’m not trying to be anybody but myself.”

The underdog has now become the favorite.

There is one aspect of Turner’s free agency that doesn’t match up with those $300 million-plus comparisons: He is hitting the market 2-3 years older than they were because he went to college and they turned pro out of high school. But Turner has continuously evolved since being a first-round pick in 2014, from finding out he could hit for power to advancing the tired concept of the slide seemingly out of the blue last season.

If you take those late-blooming qualities, the outlier athleticism, the positional versatility and the gentle to non-existent athletic aging curve, it’s not hard to imagine that his next five years will look like those of a less unique but otherwise comparable player, even one a bit younger. It’s not scientific, but the process of an owner or GM choosing to offer $270 million or $300 million involves a good bit of gut feel, too.

Whether you’re the numbers dork or the eye-test fan, no matter how you measure it, there seems to be a number of outlier qualities about Turner’s athleticism. And the adaptability, or problem-solving (he builds computers, too) seems to be a standout.

“I don’t really set goals or limits. I don’t really know what I’m capable of,” Turner said. “I kinda feel like I can do anything …It’s a never-ending process.”

If you were an owner spending $300 million-ish on a baseball player’s late-20’s and most of their 30’s, isn’t this what you’d want — a player who figures to keep his physical tools longer than usual while also being able to learn new tricks along the way?

The market for the four nine-figure shortstops — Turner, Correa, Swanson and Bogaerts — figures to include the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies with the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels and Atlanta Braves all possibly in the mix as well. It even sounds like A.J. Preller and the San Diego Padres are kicking around the possibility.

Turner has been texting with his former N.C. State teammate and fellow free agent Carlos Rodon (he went third overall in the 2014 draft), seeing a chance for a reunion: “It would be cool to play together one day. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to make it happen, or if it’s possible.”

The top of the market is at a bit of a standstill at the moment, but there’s a new rumor each day about one of them signing, or being close, or narrowing down a list.

Expect some action sliding your way soon.

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