Blue Jays sign free-agent Justin Turner
Positive move but another strong bat required before spring training
The Blue Jays on Tuesday evening announced the signing of 39-year-old free-agent Justin Turner to a one-year contract, worth $13-million, with a, reported, additional $1.5M in incentives. The Turner signing is a huge step forward for a front office that had set as its off-season goal, the need to regain a lost balance between its defence-heavy run-prevention of 2023 and a previous flair for run-production that dried up with the stadium changes. It’s a good step, but at least one more bat is needed.
Speculation is that Turner, the righthanded hitter who boasts 86 games of post-season experience with the Dodgers, will be counted on primarily as Jays’ DH, with the ability to also fill in at third and first-base. The Long Beach, CA, native, in 2023, his one and only season in Boston, hit .276, in 146 games, with 23 homers, 96 RBIs and an OPS of .800. But he may become more than just a DH.
"Justin Turner has proven himself not only as an exceptional player on the field, but also an exemplary leader in the clubhouse,” said Blue Jays’ GM Ross Atkins. “Justin’s history of delivering in big moments and his consistent pursuit of winning are admirable traits.”
Nowhere does Atkins say he is a DH. In fact, Justin may end up playing a position more than anyone thinks. If ever there was a year in which Turner might impact the Jays as a third-baseman, this is it. Last year, in his 15th big-league season, his first at Fenway, he had clearly signed to replace Sox DH J.D. Martinez and played just seven games at third base, with 41 at first base and 10 at second.
There were solid reasons for that limited Sox position distribution, reasons that had nothing to do with health or diminished ability to handle a glove. Consider that third base, the primary position throughout his career, was manned by Rafael Devers, one of the best third-basemen in the game. The odd fact Turner had more reps in Boston at first base, than at third, resulted from obvious growing pains manager Alex Cora had in refining the 23-year-old rookie, Tristan Casas, who was earning his spurs on a fast-track, but yielding first to Turner whenever he needed a break.
Could Turner play more third base for the Jays than imagined? At Rogers Centre, third-base, given the apparent departure of Matt Chapman, leaves it as far more of a possibility that Turner may see just as many games at the hot corner as he does at DH. That, of course, depends on health and what he shows in the spring.
Consider two years ago, his final season in Los Angeles, Turner logged 62 games at third base and 66 at DH, almost equal. More impressive, going back another season, in 2021, as a 36-year-old, Turner in L.A. played 151 games, 143 at third base (2.7 Def. WAR) and just four as DH. Again, good health.
Turner likely did not ask for the primary DH role in Boston. But it was available. Over the ’23 campaign, he missed just 16 total games. Only three times did he sit out more than one game before returning to the lineup. Only three times did Turner have back-to-back starts without reaching base via either a hit or a walk. Consistent offence. Both stats are impressive for major-leaguers of any age.
Chapman is a career Gold Glove defender at third base, but Atkins’ off-season goal was to reach a winning balance between run prevention and production and it can easily be argued that Turner’s offensive production is more valuable than was Chapman’s defence. Can Turner handle the position? Consider that Phase 2 of the Rogers Centre stadium renovations have reduced the total amount of foul territory behind first and third base and down the foul lines, so the familiar sight of Chapman racing into foul territory down the line to corral popups will not need to be duplicated by Turner. Add to that the obvious and dramatic improvement by Bo Bichette defensively and you have what may be a serviceable left side of the infield.
Are there clues that the cerebral redhead could end up playing more third base than anyone may have imagined. A quick look at the Blue Jays’ website, shifting attention to the current 40-man roster shows the team is now listing free-agent signee Isiah Kiner-Falefa as an outfielder. Interpreting that move leads to the conclusion that maybe the team knew a third-baseman was coming along and that Kiner-Falefa’s role might become more closely aligned to the departed Whit Merrifield’s. Then again, Turner, a valuable clubhouse presence, may have also looked at the opportunity to play the field with the Jays, which could have been a decision-maker.
So what opportunities would John Schneider have to be able to get Turner off his feet for perhaps 70-80 games at DH? Facing lefthanded starters, Schneider in ’23 often would sit one of his two lefthanded hitting outfielders, Kevin Kiermaier or Daulton Varsho. This year, he could have Turner as DH, IKF in left field, with Espinal playing third base and Davis Schneider manning second. Turner’s ability to play more third than first thought, would also allow DH to be used as a way to get veteran George Springer off his feet, as well as first-baseman Vlad Guerrero Jr.
But even with that lineup improvement, and acknowledging a pitching staff that is deep and ready to compete, it says here the Jays still need one more bat to lengthen an order that is strong from one to five, but then falls off a cliff or at the very least teeters on the precipice of mediocrity.