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Orioles free agent target: Trea Turner

One of the top talents on the free agent market possesses elite speed and impressive on-base skills. Those are two things the Orioles desperately need, regardless of position.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at San Diego Padres Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

There is no need for the Orioles to go and sign a high-cost shortstop. The big league squad currently features the premier fielder at the position in Jorge Mateo. Their top prospect, Gunnar Henderson, is ready for an everyday role and comes with needed pop at the plate. Not to mention, there’s a trio of youngsters (Jordan Westburg, Joey Ortiz, and Jackson Holliday) that all appear capable of getting to Baltimore soon and being the team’s shortstop for a long time to come.

However, Trea Turner is not just any player. He is a special talent that would bring much-needed on-base skills, plate discipline, foot speed, and sneaky power to an Orioles offense in need of a jolt. As exciting as many of the young players in the organization are, Turner is better than all of them.

Turner is one of the top five talents available on the free agent market this winter. Some publications prefer him —ever so slightly—over Carlos Correa (plus Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson) as the top shortstop of the class. Take a look at his career numbers, and it’s easy to come to a similar conclusion.

The 29-year-old Turner has accumulated 31.6 fWAR since 2016, his first “full” season in the bigs. That’s the most among the big four free agent shortstops.

Over 160 games in 2022, Turner hit .298/.343/.466. Each of those numbers would have led qualified Orioles hitters. His 21 home runs would have been third on the team behind Anthony Santander and Ryan Mountcastle. As would his 27 steals, trailing only Jorge Mateo and Cedric Mullins, who finished first and second in the AL for that category. That combination of speed, power, and on-base ability doesn’t come available very often.

It’s not like it was a fluky season either. Turner was even better in 2021, which he split between the Nationals and Dodgers. Over 148 games that season, he boasted an impressive .328/.375/.536 slash line with 28 home runs and 32 stolen bases. Remember how impressive Mullins was in ‘21? Turner was better.

Speed is a crucial element in Turner’s game. His top sprint speed has been in the top 1% of all players every season since he entered the league. His 30.3 ft/sec sprint in 2022 was only slightly lower than his career high of 30.7 ft/sec, a number he achieved as recently as 2021. That would make him the Orioles’ fastest runner, just ahead of Mateo. There are legitimate concerns about that skill aging less gracefully than others, but you would have expected the downturn to have already begun as Turner nears age 30. Instead, he’s as fast as ever.

That ability to outrun just about anyone is part of what makes Turner so valuable on the bases. The 6.5 BsR he earned in 2022 was seventh best in baseball. Once again, that would have been the best mark on the Orioles, and once again it would put him a few rungs above the speedy Mateo.

The weakest part of Turner’s game at this point in his career is his defense. But it’s not as if he’s a butcher in the field. He simply makes the plays he should make and little more. There’s nothing special about his throwing arm, and his prodigious speed doesn’t seem to provide much of a boost when it comes to his range. If your ideal shortstop is a perennial Gold Glove contender, you may need to look elsewhere.

But who is to say teams have to eye Turner as a shortstop now or moving forward? His big league career began with him at second base and in the outfield. Following the trade to the Dodgers in 2021, he once again found himself at second base. That is an area where the Orioles desperately need to upgrade, and Turner would fit the bill if the club preferred Henderson and Mateo on the left side of the infield.

Of course, players have agency in where they play on the field. Turner has said before that he prefers shortstop. He told the Orange County Register prior to the 2022 season that he was “excited to play shortstop again. It feels so much more normal and natural. I felt like I was almost playing left-handed at second base.”

But it wouldn’t be the first time a notable shortstop made the position change when coming into an organization. Trevor Story did it just a year ago, going from the Rockies’ shortstop to the Red Sox’ second baseman after signing a six-year, $140 million pact with the BoSox.

Turner will get (a lot) more money than that: FanGraphs projects nine years, $288 million ($32 million AAV). MLB Trade Rumors says eight years, $268 million ($33.5 million AAV).

Perhaps those figures make you, the penny-pincher reader, a bit squeamish to have so much money tied up at second base, a traditionally under-funded position on the diamond. But when it’s all said and done, this is about getting the most possible value out of a roster. Mateo and Henderson would make up an extremely affordable and talented shortstop-third base duo. It would be fine to splash the cash at second base for the time being, particularly for a player with both production and durability.

Since 2018, Turner has played in 92% of his team’s games. He played 160 in 2022, 148 in ‘21, and 59 in ‘20, the shortened 60-game COVID season. His last significant injury came in 2019, when he broke his index finger on a bunt attempt in early April, which kept him out until mid-May. He would still go on to play in 122 games for the World Series champion Nationals.

It should be noted that giving out a big contract to a hitter would seem to run counter to the way in which Mike Elias has rebuilt the Orioles organization. Most of their draft capital has been tied up in bats, while many of the pitchers have come from other clubs. If this front office was going to give out money this off-season, it seems more likely to go to an arm than anyone else.

So while signing Turner (or any of the top shortstops, for that matter) may be unlikely, it doesn’t change the fact that doing so would solve many of the Orioles’ existing holes. And it would do so with more security than hoping that a prospect or two lives up to their projections.