Sinking in the NL East race and needing a boost, the Nationals have called up shortstop prospect Trea Turner. But how will they use the young shortstop?
Trea Turner is on the go again. The 22-year-old shortstop and 2014 first-round pick by the Padres is headed to the sixth stop of his brief professional career: He's been called up by the Nationals, who hope he can inject some life into their fading postseason chances.
Chosen with the 14th pick last year out of North Carolina State, Turner hit a combined .323/.406/.448 with five homers and 23 steals in 321 plate appearances split between two A-ball stops, but he spent the first half of this season in a peculiar limbo. Officially, he was still property of the Padres, but it was an open secret that he was the player to be named later in the three-way, 11-player December blockbuster involving the Rays and Nationals and centering around Wil Myers. An MLB rule—informally known as "The Incaviglia Rule" after Pete Incaviglia, who was drafted by the Expos in 1985 but traded to the Rangers that November after failing to reach a contract agreement—prevented him from being officially dealt until a year after he was drafted.
The rule was amended in May so that recent draftees can now be traded after that year's World Series, but MLB wouldn't let it be applied to Turner. So after spending spring training with the Padres, he began the year with their Double A affiliate in San Antonio. Not until June 14 could he join the Nationals' organization, but since he has, he's moved quickly. After just 10 games with Double A Harrisburg, he moved on to Triple A Syracuse, where he played 48 games. Despite the disruptions, he's hit a combined .322/.370/.458 with eight homers and 29 steals in 500 PA at the three stops. His stock has risen quickly in the eyes of prospect hounds: Baseball America ranked him ninth on their midseason Top 50 prospects list, and he placed on the other major lists as well. He also went 2-for-2 with a pair of extra-base hits at the All-Star Futures Game in Cincinnati:
Via BA’s John Manuel, “Syracuse manager Billy Gardner Jr. told me at TripleA All-Star Game that Turner was nearly ready, not just to make it, but to make impact.”
Turner is a leadoff hitter in the making thanks to his combination of elite speed (some scouts give him the maximum 80 grade) and patience as well as his hitting ability, which comes with enough power that he projects for double-digit home run totals, though scouts have been critical of his long swing. Some have also expressed concern about whether he has the arm strength to remain at shortstop, at least in the longer term, but as Baseball Prospectus' Jeff Moore pointed out earlier this week, his recent two-game stint at second base for Harrisburg should be read as a means of increasing his options for playing time upon being called up, rather than a referendum on his future.
All of which means that Turner joins a crowded situation in Washington. As I noted on Thursday's SI Now, incumbent shortstop Ian Desmond has been one of the team's most disappointing players, hitting just .227/.277/.386 for an 81 OPS+ overall, down from an average of 114 over the previous three seasons; in other words, his offensive production has fallen by 33% relative to the league. His defense has declined as well, though last year's +2 Defensive Runs Saved was a career best and his only year in the black; this year's -4 is more or less par for the course. A pending free agent, he's likely to be replaced by Turner next year, but that doesn't mean he's yielding immediately: He's hit a robust .274/.336/.530 in 129 PA with eight homers since the All-Star break, compared to .211/.255/.334 with seven homers in 348 PA prior, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio has been cut from 5.8 to 3.2 in that span as well. For his part, Desmond told the Washington Post's Chelsea Janes regarding playing time, "This is about winning right now ... there's no personal agendas. It's about the Nationals."
Elsewhere in the infield, Anthony Rendon was supposed to be the team's regular second baseman after a 2014 season that put him in the NL MVP discussion, but he missed the first 53 games of the year due to a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee and then an oblique strain on the left side, then lost another 23 games in June and July to a left quadriceps strain. Amid those miseries, he's hit a meager .247/.327/.320 with one homer in 171 PA. Danny Espinosa, who picked up the slack for Rendon, has hit .248/.318/.422 with 12 homers and a 102 OPS+, which, sadly, ranks fourth among the team's regulars. Third baseman Yunel Escobar is third on the team via a 114 OPS+ off a .305/.359/.419 line.
Aside from the usual aches and pains, there's no obvious injury situation to open up playing time for Turner (it was outfielder/first baseman Tyler Moore's sprained ankle that opened up the roster spot). All of the principals involved are righties save for the switch-hitting Espinosa, so there's no obvious platoon solution, though all but Desmond now have experience at multiple positions, so manager Matt Williams can mix and match at second, short and third. Williams did little more than breeze through the options in discussing Turner's role:
Williams on Turner's role: "It depends on need. It depends on where we're at in games." Said could get a start, PH, steal a base late.— Chelsea Janes (@chelsea_janes) August 21, 2015
Williams, who's hardly one of MLB's more tactically gifted managers, may not have figured out how to use Turner yet, and arguably, general manager Mike Rizzo should have already made this move given the team's fading postseason hopes. He told Janes the team was planning to call up Turner in September but that “maybe this was a time to inject a little more speed, youth, athleticism."
Desmond’s recent upswing aside, the move is arguably overdue. Heavily favored to win the division and more, Nationals have gone 6–13 this month to fall to 60–60, four games behind the Mets in the NL East race and an almost insurmountable 8 1/2 out in the NL wild-card race. The Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds estimate their chances at winning the division at 20.3%, compared to a 0.9% shot at a wild-card spot. Still, the team has at least called up its best position-player prospect at a time when there’s some urgency, and while Turner can’t be expected to turn Washington's season around single-handedly, he can’t hurt the Nats' chances much more than they’ve already been hurt.