If you are a Mission, you are on a mission.
The San Antonio Missions are the double-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres. If you play for San Antonio, your goal is to get to San Diego.
Unless, that is, you get swallowed up in an obscure rule. You hear all about playing for the name on the front of the jersey, but you can’t.
You are a prisoner of a rule that was born seven years before you were and that would die five months too late to help you. You are Trea Turner, serving two months in baseball purgatory before your liberation.
The Washington Nationals decided they would trade for you and wait for you, and seldom has any team made a wiser decision.
In 2014, Turner played for North Carolina State in the Atlantic Coast Conference. In 2015, he played in the Texas League, as a shortstop.
When the Nationals open the playoffs Friday against the Dodgers, the 23-year-old rookie will be their center fielder and leadoff batter, after delivering two of the most dynamic months in the major leagues this season.
The Nationals’ marquee names might be Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Max Scherzer, but the series could turn on how effectively the Dodgers can keep Turner off base, or at least keep him on first base.
Turner batted .347 with 32 stolen bases, all after the All-Star break. The Dodgers — all of them — stole 45 bases this season.
“He’s changed the complexion of our game,” Nationals coach Davey Lopes said. “He adds a dimension that I think a lot of teams would like to have, although some of them say speed is nothing.”
In 2009, the Angels drafted Mike Trout after 21 teams had passed on him. In 2014, the Padres drafted Turner after 12 teams had passed on him. This is not to say that Turner will turn out as well as Trout, but at least the Angels kept Trout.
The Padres, mortgaging their future for what turned out to be an ill-fated attempt to win in 2015, traded Turner and pitching prospect Joe Ross to Washington in a three-way deal in which they acquired first baseman Wil Myers from the Tampa Bay Rays.
That might be the steal of the century for the Nationals; they sent backup outfielder Steven Souza Jr. to the Rays. Ross is expected to start Game 4 of a National League division series against the Dodgers.
Turner could not join the Nationals immediately after the trade because of Pete Incaviglia, a former major league outfielder who was drafted by the Montreal Expos in 1985.
Incaviglia strong-armed the Expos into trading him to the Texas Rangers, who would bring him straight to the majors. In 1986, the league responded by banning teams from trading drafted players within one year after they signed.
That kept Turner with the Padres — as a “player to be named” — for the first two months last season. The Padres sent him to San Antonio but didn’t tell him what to do. The Nationals sent scouts there to monitor his progress but couldn’t talk to him.
“For me, it was pretty relaxing,” Turner said. “I knew the Padres were just going to let me play and leave me alone.”
“We just kind of counted down the days until he was leaving San Antonio,” said Padres outfielder Hunter Renfroe, a teammate with the Missions.
On June 14, 2015 — one year and one day after he signed with the Padres — the trade was completed. In June of this year, with the Nationals scuffling for offense, they called his agent and suggested a move to center field.
“He’s a shortstop,” the agent said, according to Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo.
“Yeah, well, he can play shortstop in Syracuse or center field in Washington,” Rizzo said.
Turner took to center field, after a six-game apprenticeship at triple A.
Said Renfroe: “His athletic ability allows him to do whatever he wants.”
Sure seems that way, based on the last few months. The Dodgers’ Corey Seager is all but a lock for NL rookie of the year, but he played all six months in the majors and won rookie of the month once. Turner played two full months in the majors and won rookie of the month both times.
He hit 13 home runs — more than Yasiel Puig, in fewer at-bats. He has a higher slugging percentage than Harper. He stole more bases than Dee Gordon, in fewer games.
“He’s a really good baseball player that happens to be crazy fast,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “It’s usually the other way around: someone is crazy fast, and that’s why they make it to the big leagues. They learn how to use their speed to get on base and steal bases.
“He’s pretty special to watch.”
The matchup to watch in this series might come in the ninth inning, if Turner gets on base against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen.
Jansen has allowed runners to steal at an 89% success rate in his career. Turner stole bases at an 85% success rate.
“If he gets on in the ninth inning and he’s not on third base after three or four pitches,” Lopes said, “I might have to boot him in the rear end.”
For the Nationals, Turner could be the kick to their season.