Back in late February, on the concrete patio of the Washington Nationals’ spring training facility, here was the most pressing matter in this tiny sliver of West Palm Beach, Florida: The Nationals have a track record of giving big money to pitchers and letting homegrown position players walk. Trea Turner, leaning back in a chair, lost in a critical thought or two, was asked why they would break the mold for him.
Then Turner flipped the equation. It’s hard to imagine contract talks before the novel coronavirus pandemic began, in the same way it’s hard to imagine baseball with fans, or buying groceries with no mask on. But what Turner felt in that moment, before the sport shut down, could give a window into how he will feel moving forward.
His counter was that a player has to want the team, too. He has to like the city, the coaches, see themselves raising a family in the Washington area for six months of every year. Turner’s wife, Kristen, is pregnant with a boy. This all matters more now, at 27, with two full seasons before the shortstop reaches free agency in 2022. So when Turner considered those factors — the city, the coaches, visions of his kid running through the Nationals Park clubhouse — where did he land?
“That I hope I’m the position player they invest in,” he said with a small smile. “That I want to be a guy who plays his entire career in one place.”
The Nationals and Turner discussed a pre-free agency extension in the spring. General manager Mike Rizzo, now signed to a three-year extension himself, expects the sides to talk again once he figures out the “landscape.” That could include two components: First, how the pandemic will impact finances and future roster building. And second, and more importantly, how much Turner’s summer will up his open-market value.
He has been one of the sport’s best players in 2020. He entered Wednesday with a .359 batting average, the highest in baseball. In a 16-game hitting streak in August he had a 1.399 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, more than two hits a night, seven doubles and four homers. Those are video game numbers, and he’s mostly posted them out of the leadoff spot, where he combines flashes of power with some of the sport’s best speed.
It all makes him a logical cornerstone, the kind of infielder any team would dig in and build around. But it’s not that simple with Washington. The Nationals developed outfielder Bryce Harper before he signed a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies ahead of the 2019 season. They developed third baseman Anthony Rendon before he signed a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels last winter. And now Turner leads a young lineup with the 21-year-old Juan Soto,
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who could break records as a free agent in 2025.
Turner may not demand the mega contracts afforded to Harper and Rendon. But with his stock rising, and with room for it to grow, he’s become a premium shortstop. Since 2016, he’s been in the same statistical neighborhood as Corey Seager, Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Javier Báez, the class of the position. In 2020, he’s kept pace with phenom Fernando Tatis Jr.
There’s little recent precedent for shortstop contracts, save the two-year, $27.5 million deal Trevor Story signed with the Colorado Rockies this winter. It’s just a definite that, at some point, and by some team, Turner will get paid. He agreed to a $7.45 million salary in arbitration before this season. If he does not sign an extension before the Nationals finish 2022, he’d have two arbitration years.
“Well he’s got a bright future, I know that much,” Rizzo said Sunday when asked how Turner’s season has influenced the club’s view of extending him. “He’s going to make a lot of money.”
Rizzo then expressed his intentions of keeping Turner. The GM’s core philosophy is to spend on pitching, as evidenced by long, expensive contracts for Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg (twice) and Patrick Corbin. But with Harper and Rendon gone, and Ryan Zimmerman nearing retirement, Turner and Soto are the core of the next generation.
Once Zimmerman opted out of playing in 2020, Turner became the team’s longest tenured position player. The Nationals acquired him in a trade with the San Diego Padres in 2015, when he still looked like a teenager out of Lake Worth, Florida. Zimmerman remembers thinking Turner looked like a “middle-schooler showing up for the first day of practice.”
He’s quasi-homegrown, having debuted with Washington and spent three years in its minor league system. And if he signs a long-term deal here, snapping a trend, he could become the first “homegrown” player to ink a nine-figure deal since Zimmerman did in 2012. Rizzo gave him six years and $100 million when the Nationals were just starting to contend. In March, about a week after Turner expressed interest in staying long-term, Zimmerman made a simple case for extending him.
“Well you have to do it at some point,” Zimmerman said of the Nationals not giving long-term deals to position players. “Financially, if you wait too long people are too expensive. You have to take a risk at a young age, and he would be, in my eyes, a perfect person to do that with.”
“They’ve tried a little bit. I’ll give them credit,” Turner added in February, grinning but careful to not say much about Harper or Rendon, two teammates who were close friends of his. “They’ve tried. Maybe not go all out and break the bank try. They’ve offered some good offers. It’s what are you willing to give up, risk, are you OK with $5 million left on the table, $150 million with some deferrals, whatever it is?
“Do you want to even be here? Do you want to go home to where you grew up? I don’t know. You can offer somebody a ton of money and if they don’t want to be here, they don’t want to be here.”
Zimmerman cited Turner’s speed, power, maturity and defense, in that order. Manager Dave Martinez had a similar assessment Tuesday, saying: “You want to build an organization, a team, around that guy.” But that leads back to Turner’s first point — that he’s sizing up the Nationals as they size up him.
It’s rare for a player to spend his entire career with one team. So much has to align, from the money, to the competing interests, to if a club is competitive in the player’s prime. Zimmerman will go wire-to-wire with the Nationals. Strasburg could, too. Around the league, Mike Trout has a massive contract to keep him with the Angels through the 2030 season, and Clayton Kerhsaw is in his 13th year with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The list isn’t much longer. In his perfect world, Turner would expand it, becoming a father and veteran, maybe an all star and MVP candidate, with the Nationals. His favorite player growing up was Derek Jeter, who played all 20 of his seasons with the New York Yankees. Turner also admired Kobe Bryant, always with the Los Angeles Lakers, and Cal Ripken Jr., a durable shortstop with a still-burning loyalty to the Baltimore Orioles.
Winning the World Series last October made Turner even more sure that Washington is home. He’ll soon know how the Nationals feel, and if his summer of hits could change that.
“Suffice it to say, he’s a guy that we’d love to build around,” Rizzo said this week. “And we’d love to have him here for a long time.”