Should the Chicago Cubs Pursue Free Agent Third Baseman Justin Turner?

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Should the Chicago Cubs Pursue Free Agent Third Baseman Justin Turner?

Chicago Cubs

Because we all know the Cubs went after Jose Abreu in free agency earlier this offseason (spoiler alert, they did not sign him), I think we’ve all been a little too keyed in on alternative 1B/DH types to fill that void — Trey Mancini, Josh Bell (before he signed), JD Martinez, etc. There’s nothing wrong with those players, but they’re not the only way to go about improving the offense.

For example, what if the Cubs went in-house at first base? Given their relative strengths, and the general desire to ease prospects into the big leagues, a Patrick Wisdom/Matt Mervis platoon could be a reasonable way to start the season — at least until Mervis got his feet under him. And remember, (1) the Cubs already began transitioning Wisdom to 1B at the end of last season, and (2) he CRUSHES lefties, which would pair nicely with the left-handed hitting Mervis.

Patrick Wisdom vs. LHP:

2022: .250/.336/.556 (147 wRC+)
Career: .240/.324/.512 (126 wRC+)

Of course, while a Wisdom/Mervis platoon might settle first base well enough, it also immediately opens a hole at third base. And that’s where I’m suggesting the Cubs go out and sign free agent 3B Justin Turner.

We all know Justin Turner, 38, from his late-career renaissance in Los Angeles, where, from ages 29-37, he was one of the best hitters in MLB: .296/.375/.490; 136 wRC+ (18th in MLB from 2014-2022).

And he was no slouch this past season, either: .278/.350/.438 (123 wRC+).

But that’s really only half the story, because for Turner, 2022 was a tale of two halves.

Before the All-Star break (348 PAs), Turner managed just a slightly above-average 108 wRC+, despite walking 9.8% of the time and striking out only 16.7% of the time. That was due partly to some weaker contact and maybe a little too much elevation for the type of contact he was making, but also to a probably unlucky .286 BABIP (well below his .315 career mark). I can also see in his plate discipline data that Turner was a little too passive in the first half of the season, particularly on pitches in the zone:

First-half Z-swing rate: 69.6%
Second-half Z-swing rate: 77.4%

He made more contact on pitches in the zone in the first half, but clearly at the expense of his overall production. Because HOOOOOO boy, he absolutely popped off in the second half of the season. I’m talking vintage Justin Turner stuff: .319/.386/.503 (152 wRC+); 15 doubles, 5 homers, 8.7 BB%, 16.8 K%.

And while the BABIP was elevated (.364), he did post a 90.1 MPH average exit velocity and a 43.3% hard-hit rate. For the season as a whole, his .343 wOBA only just out-paced his statcast expected mark (.339 xWOBA).

Turner also elevates the ball as much as anyone in baseball (18.4%, 21st in MLB last season), which is something about the Cubs offense we know Jed Hoyer is expressly seeking to improve. That’s part of the reason I thought Swanson might be a target way back in August.

Now, there are a few few important caveats here. For one, I think the addition of Justin Turner is a great idea … but only in the event the Cubs also get Dansby Swanson. Without first landing Swanson, raising the floor of the defense and overall team in 2023, a Turner-pursuit just kinda feels toothless. As in, what’s really the point? Fortunately, I do feel as though the Cubs are leading the way on Swanson, so maybe this could work as a complimentary play. And again, if you add Turner (or any quality third baseman), you indirectly improve the outlook at first base at the same time. You also free up Chris Morel to move around the diamond in a super-utility role, which I think will be his best value-add in 2023.

Then there’s his age, which cuts two ways. For however much I like his performance in 2022, Turner did just turn 38-years old. He can’t play forever. Even the Cubs previous “old” target, Jose Abreu, is a little over two-years younger. On the flip side, Turner’s age might push him toward a more obvious contender, if one will have him, in 2023. He’s already won one championship (Dodgers, 2020). But you know what’s better than one World Series ring? Two World Series rings. And his time is running out.

With that said, Turner has already fielded interest from the Miami Marlins, who are most certainly not going to make hay in the NL East this year. So maybe he’s open to some less-than definite contenders (perhaps because he sees the opportunity to get traded to a winner at the deadline, which could work to the Cubs advantage … but I don’t really feel like thinking that way in December).

Anyway, Turner ranks as FanGraphs 24th best free agent this offseason, with most projections having him land just a one-year deal in the $12-$16M range. That’s EXTREMELY doable. The Dodgers also did not extend him a qualifying offer, so he does not come attached to draft pick compensation.

So if you want to raise the ceiling of the 2023 Chicago Cubs without locking down long-term deals or spending too much money (sigh), while preserving an out (a deadline trade) and indirectly improving another position in the process? Why not sign Justin Turner? He checks a lot of those boxes. Just make sure you get Dansby Swanson first. Without him, it’s pretty pointless.

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Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami