St. Louis Cardinals: Why Pursuing Justin Turner Makes Sense

Now that Yoenis Cespedes is off the table, the St. Louis Cardinals need to make a push for the best free agent left on the market this offseason — Justin Turner.

The hot stove got turned up a couple of degrees yesterday morning when it was reported by Jon Morosi that the St. Louis Cardinals are interested in free agent third baseman Justin Turner. But does he make sense for the Redbirds? I believe he does. So, let’s dive in.

My dreams were dashed yesterday when the New York Mets ponied up and got their man back in Yoenis Cespedes — signing the 31-year old to a 4-year $110M deal with a full no-trade clause. Sure, it’s a lot of money, but I believe at the end of that contract that the Mets will be quite content with what they received from the left fielder. It’s no secret that I’ve been a huge Cespedes advocate this offseason, but there is no reason to rehash those sentiments now. He’s not an option anymore.

With that said, Cardinals’ general manager John Mozeliak now needs to lace up those nice dress shoes, put on his flashiest red bow tie, and head out to Maryland next week for the annual Winter Meetings to lock up the next best player in this free agency pool, and that guy, by far, is Turner. No more finishing second in signing a player in the offseason.

Most found Morosi’s report a bit surprising considering that Mozeliak has stated early this offseason that his goal is to find a defensive upgrade in center field. I was actually pleasantly surprised to find that there is interest in Turner. So, why does the 32-year old infielder make sense for the Cardinals?

With all the hype surrounding Dexter Fowler (which is still baffling to me), it actually makes more sense for the Cardinals to get a guy like Turner who would be a fantastic defensive upgrade at third base. In fact, the case can be made that with Matt Carpenter now shifting to first base next season the Cardinals are in more dire need of replacing Jhonny Peralta defensively at that position than Randal Grichuk in center field.

Last season, Peralta was dreadful at the hot corner. The 34-year old posted a minus-8.8 UZR, which ranked 29th out of 33 third basemen in the MLB (minimum 500 innings). Peralta also had negative-7 defensive runs saved at third base which ranked 7th lowest in all of baseball at that position.

Turner, on the other hand, was stellar at third base in 2016. The California native posted a dazzling 14.1 UZR at third, which was second highest in the MLB behind only Adrian Beltre of the Texas Rangers. Turner also had 7 defensive runs saved at the position last year, which was the 7th highest ranking.

I’ve already gone into detail about why Grichuk should stay in center field next year, and you can read up on that again, here. But essentially, as bad as some thought Grichuk was in center last season, he posted a -0.9 UZR, which is close to average at the position. Peralta, as of right now, is set up to be the Cardinals everyday third baseman, and with that -8.8 UZR it can be argued that Turner is much more of a need for this team than a center fielder like Fowler.

And we have yet to touch on Turner’s offensive ability. Take a look at his numbers last season:

Year Age G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2016 31 151 556 79 153 34 3 27 90 48 107 .275 .339 .493 .832 124

Turner mashed last year, and that offense combined with his defense churned out a 5.6 fWAR season — 5th best among third basemen in 2016 behind only Kris Bryant, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado and Beltre. Maybe you’ve heard of those guys.

There are, however, two main worries in signing Turner:

1. He just turned 32 last week. Turner is rumored to be seeking a 4 or 5 year deal which would put him at age 36/37 by the end of his deal, and that is not a great age to be giving a bunch of money to a guy. Advocates of the Cardinals signing Fowler (who turns 31 in March) will argue this point, and it is a fair one to argue but not a deal breaker.

2. Turner is a late bloomer. This second point worries me more than the age honestly. Turner revamped his career in Los Angeles, changing his swing and serving as the Dodgers super-utility man. Towards the second half of 2015, the 32-year old got his shot at starting full time and never looked back.

The question is — was his 2016 a flash in the pan or can Turner continue to hit well and develop that power?

Still, even with those two worries there is a lot to like about Turner. As far as versatility goes, he is a more consistent version of Jedd Gyorko. Turner has also played shortstop, second base and first base in his career logging 280.2, 952.1 and 238.1 innings respectively at those positions.

He is by far a better defender at third, but has posted respectable UZRs at first base and shortstop in the past. The point is Turner would provide the Cardinals with another versatile guy that could man several positions around the diamond.

So what would it take to sign Turner? Jon Heyman predicts a 5-year $70M deal for the third baseman. I don’t see Mozeliak giving a 32-year old a 5-year deal. If he didn’t go for it with a guy like Cespedes, who has a more proven track record, then odds are he won’t with Turner.

If Turner signs with the Cardinals I’m predicting a 4-year $70M deal to get it done. If Mozeliak doesn’t want to finish second in signing a guy like Turner this offseason, it will take a bit of overpaying to get it done. And let’s not forget, the Cardinals would also be forfeiting a draft pick due to the Dodgers extending Turner a qualifying offer.

Is that type of contract worth it? That of course depends on how productive Turner could be in his age 32-36 seasons. Craig Edwards wrote a great piece a couple of weeks ago over at FanGraphs about what the value of a deal for Turner might look like. He dives into projected WAR numbers and dollar value per season of what a 5-year deal for Turner would come out to and argues that he could be one of the better bargains of the offseason. I agree.

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Signing Turner wouldn’t magically turn the Cardinals into National League Central division champions again, but it is a good step in the right direction. If this deal does happen, it will certainly open the way for a trade of Peralta and a pitcher like Jaime Garcia or Michael Wacha. Time will tell.

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