For soon-to-be National Trea Turner, a spring in limbo with Padres
"You wear this one for the game, and the other one for BP?" Turner asked. Medica nodded.
For the 21-year-old Turner, the 13th pick in last June's draft out of North Carolina State, Wednesday should have been a wholly wonderful day: the first spring training game of his career. But like everything else this spring for Turner, it was tinged with strangeness.
Last Dec. 17, in the midst of a splashy off-season in which he brought Matt Kemp and Justin Upton to San Diego, first-year Padres general manager A.J. Preller acquired young slugger Wil Myers from the Rays in a massive three-team trade that also included the Nationals. As a part of the deal, the Padres sent pitching prospect Joe Ross to Washington, along with a player to be named later.
In his case, the player would be named much later—seven months later, to be exact. The player was Turner, the blazingly fast shortstop whom Baseball America ranks as the game's 65th-best prospect on its current Top 100 list. But due to an archaic rule that forbids clubs from trading players until at least a year after they have been drafted, Turner must remain San Diego's property until mid-June. The Padres have not and cannot publicly acknowledge baseball's worst-kept secret.
"He's our player, and we put him here in big league camp to give him an opportunity," said Preller last Wednesday.
The reality is that Turner finds himself stuck in a baseball purgatory that is all his own. Here, he's bonding with teammates he knows won't be his for long—his locker is situated between Upton's and second baseman Jedd Gyorko's, and just four to the right of the player for whom he was traded—and learning the routines of a camp he can be sure he won't be attending next spring.
"It's been interesting," he says. "I didn't really know what to expect coming here. I didn't know how spring training worked. Obviously, this is my first one. So I'm just trying to learn the ropes, see how to get prepared for a season and how to make adjustments early so when you get in the season you're ready to go, and you can hit the ground running."
Each morning, he studies the clubhouse bulletin board that details the day's schedule. "The board pretty much tells you everything, so I gotta go check the board. It tells me where to be and when. But I'm still playing it by ear, asking some of my teammates how to go about it. I'm just trying to keep my head down and do the right thing."
There is no bulletin board that can tell him how to handle a circumstance that no player has ever before faced. When he speaks to a member of the media—which he hasn't often—he checks first for the approval of the Padres' public relations staff. Cameras tend to swarm around him, so great is the interest in what he is going through. "He's in a tough situation," Upton says. "At the same time, man, you show up to work and play baseball. That's what he's done every day. You don't hear much out of him, but he comes and gets it done."
To the baseball public, Turner's situation has come to overshadow virtually everything else about him, including how he became the crucial player-to-be-named in a blockbuster trade in the first place. He grew up in West Palm Beach, Fla., dreaming of playing college ball at Florida State, but he was always small. "I went into high school at 5'4", 100 pounds, and when I graduated I was probably about 6'1", 160," he says. "I was pretty weak. I was an OK baseball player, but I wasn't as big, fast or strong as a lot of kids."
Turner (who is now 6'1" and 175 pounds) received just two college scholarship offers, from N.C. State and Florida Atlantic. He accepted the former because it would allow him to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference—against Florida State. "I kind of wanted to play in the ACC to prove to a lot of people, and to myself, that I could play at that level," he says. "I like having something to motivate me. I expect a lot out of myself, but I also like to prove some other people wrong along the way."
He immediately did. As a freshman in 2012, he stole 57 bases in 63 games. By the time he finished his junior season last spring, he had swiped 113 bags to go with a career batting average of .342 and a .942 OPS, and he had won the Brooks Wallace award as the nation's top collegiate shortstop. After he received a $2.9 million signing bonus from the Padres—he was the second shortstop selected in the draft; the Twins picked Nick Gordon fifth overall—he batted .323 with five home runs and 23 steals in A-ball, cementing his status as a top prospect and also, as it turned out, his trade value.
Though they can't acknowledge it, the Padres have put themselves in a difficult and unprecedented position. For the next several months, they will be responsible for developing another team's shortstop of the future. They will have to decide how much to invest in a player out of whom they have already extracted as much value as they are going to, as far as the playing time and instruction they will devote to him over someone else who might actually wear their uniform one day.
Turner, meanwhile, has spent his spring absorbing as much as he can from stars next to whom he'll likely never appear to on a major league diamond. "Obviously Justin and Matt Kemp can hit bombs, and they both hit for a very good average, so I look to see what they do with their swings and see how it can help me," he says. He has even benefitted from watching as Dave Roberts—the Padres' bench coach who swiped more than 40 bags in three different seasons as a player—imparted base stealing tips to Myers.
Ultimately, on a day to day basis, Turner's spring training hasn't been particularly different from that of any young player's, despite his situation. "It's beyond my control, and I'm not going to worry about something that's beyond my control," he says. "I'm just going to go out and play as hard as I can and help my team win. You don't know how long you're going to be up here, or even in the game of baseball, period, so each and every day you've got to get something out of it if you can."
Turner's future will likely include many years with the Nationals, as their current shortstop, Ian Desmond, is due to become a free agent after this season. He may even get a new rule named after him, as the one that has resulted in his current predicament benefits no one. His focus, though, is on the present.
Wearing the proper jersey, for now, Turner entered Wednesday's game against the Mariners as a pinch runner in the top of the ninth inning and promptly stole second base. If, for the next four months, he desires the type of motivation that Florida State once provided him, he won't have to look far.