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Justin Turner’s return to Dodgers isn’t guaranteed as team mulls options

Justin Turner heads back to the dugout after striking out in Game 6 of the World Series.
Dodgers star Justin Turner is a free agent, and the Dodgers are expected to explore other options at third base, such as a trade for Nolan Arenado.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

This is the final story in a series looking at Dodgers free agents.

CASE FOR DODGERS KEEPING JUSTIN TURNER: He is a face of the franchise and fan favorite, both for his success on the field and his philanthropy in the community. He’s about to turn 36 on Monday, but he’s remained a crucial component in the Dodgers’ success.

CASE AGAINST: He’s about to turn 36. Injuries have hampered him in recent seasons. This year he missed more than two weeks with a hamstring injury. Then there’s the possibility that his decision to celebrate winning the World Series on the field after testing positive for the coronavirus strained the organization’s relationship with him enough to influence negotiations.

BEST OTHER FITS: Texas Rangers, Atlanta Braves, Washington Nationals.

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Imagining Justin Turner in another uniform at this point in his career is difficult. He joined the Dodgers in February 2014 on a minor league deal months after the New York Mets declined to offer him a contract. He was a backup looking for a chance. Seven seasons later, he’s a beloved figure in Los Angeles, a leader in the clubhouse and a pivotal performer on the field. But this is a business, as they say in these situations, and anything is possible.

Turner was asked a few times this year, going back to spring training, about his impending free agency. He never said a contract extension with the club had been discussed. In May, when there was a possibility Major League Baseball wouldn’t stage a season, he thought about the prospect of not playing for the Dodgers again.

“It would be sad,” Turner said. “Sad to think about.”

Mike Bolsinger, who blames the Astros for his inability to find a pitching job, wants to ask Jim Crane about Jeff Luhnow’s lawsuit in a deposition.

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MLB went on to hold a 60-game season and an expanded postseason. The Dodgers were the last team standing for the first time in 32 years. It was the triumph Turner and so many others on the team, after dealing with annual heartbreak, yearned to experience. But Turner wasn’t on the field for the final out. He was sequestered in the clubhouse after testing positive for the coronavirus and getting pulled from the game in the eighth inning.

What followed could complicate his free agency. Turner emerged on the field to celebrate with teammates. He wore a mask most of the time but took it off for team photos. The decision sparked a national controversy. MLB released a stern statement the next day, saying that Turner “chose to disregard the agreed-upon joint protocols and the instructions he was given regarding the safety and protection of others” — even though several league officials, including commissioner Rob Manfred, were in attendance and didn’t enforce the rules.

MLB retreated nine days later when the league, Turner and the Dodgers each released a statement. The league opted not to deal punishment. Turner apologized. Dodgers president Stan Kasten described the scene as “ultimately regrettable.”

Whether Turner’s decision affects his free agency remains unclear. He remains one of the best third basemen in baseball despite a defensive drop-off and injuries in recent years, but his value is highest in Los Angeles, where he’s entrenched in the community and the clubhouse.

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That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be an asset for another club. Turner, who was not extended a qualifying offer by the Dodgers when his four-year, $64-million deal expired after the season, would fit in the middle of almost every lineup in the majors.

He batted .307 and had an .860 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 42 games this year. He posted a 135 OPS+ — meaning he was about 35% better than the average hitter — and owns a 139 OPS+ since joining the Dodgers. His 141 wRC+ — an all-encompassing offensive metric in which 100 is average — since 2014 ranks ninth across the majors.

He’s been just as good in the postseason: He boasts a .295 batting average and .899 OPS in 314 plate appearances across 72 playoff games. This October, he batted .340 with three home runs and a 1.086 OPS in 12 games between Game 3 of the National League Division Series and Game 4 of the World Series.

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Still, Turner is at the back end of his career. This is his last chance for a big payday after he lost $12 million in 2020 to conclude his backloaded four-year contract. He earned $13 million in 2017, $12 million in 2018, $19 million in 2019, and was scheduled to make $20 million in 2020 before the season was shrunk. Instead, he made around $8 million.

Chances are, interested teams won’t offer a deal with more than two guaranteed years. Then there’s the trade market’s potential effect on his free agency.

The Colorado Rockies’ Nolan Arenado and Chicago Cubs’ Kris Bryant — two MVP-caliber third basemen — could be available this winter.

The Cubs are reportedly open to trading from their championship-winning core. Bryant struggled in 2020 — he batted .206 with four home runs and a .644 OPS in 34 games — but he’s a former rookie of the year and National League MVP. He’s entering the final year of team control, which should diminish his trade value.

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Arenado was connected to the Dodgers before he signed an eight-year, $260-million extension with the Rockies in February 2019. He is the best defensive third baseman in the majors — he recently won his eighth straight Gold Glove — and an elite hitter, though his career splits indicate he’s benefitted from playing at Coors Field. Plus, he’s a local product, born in Orange County and raised a Dodgers fan.

Arenado, 29, would have to waive his no-trade clause for the move. He also can opt out of his contract after next season with five years remaining on it. Would he push the date back to give the Dodgers at least two guaranteed years? That’s one question. There are others.

Would Rockies owner Charlie Monfort approve trading the franchise’s best player — maybe ever — to a divisional rival that has won eight straight National League West titles? Parting with a star is already painful, but watching Arenado pummel you 19 times a year, while playing for a perennial World Series contender, would only salt the wound.

From the Dodgers’ perspective, could the team afford to absorb Arenado’s $35-million salary in 2021, assuming Major League Baseball holds a full season and players are paid in full? Kasten has said multiple times that the franchise lost “well north of” $100 million in 2020. Last week, the Dodgers laid off more than 20 employees across the organization. Adding Arenado’s hefty salary doesn’t jibe with those developments.

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Acquiring Arenado or Bryant wouldn’t necessarily signal the end of Turner’s Dodgers career. The Dodgers pursued third basemen Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson in free agency last offseason before they signed elsewhere. Turner told the Dodgers he would be OK with switching positions. Turner could move to second base or first base if a third baseman is brought on board. Designated hitter is another option if the DH is approved for National League play again next year.

For now, the Dodgers have a hole at third base, and Turner is a free agent. A reunion makes sense. Seeing him in another uniform now is almost unfathomable. But nothing is guaranteed.

The Dodgers will cut ties with their rookie-level affiliate in Ogden, Utah, as part of the downsizing scheduled to take place across the minors for 2021.


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