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Justin Turner should sign with the Cardinals, but the Dodgers are still the favorites

Justin Turner is an oddball free agent, but he might be the best player left on the market.

NLCS - Chicago Cubs v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Justin Turner is the argument for why your team shouldn’t sign a 32-year-old veteran for $80 million. It’s the lazy way out. Just get off your butt, hit the pavement, and go out and find your own danged Justin Turner. Scour your old scouting reports, dig through the minor league free agents, keep an eye on the waiver wire at all times. Get a useful player with star potential, and have your superior coaches mold him into an excellent player.

It’s easy. Do I have to do everything for you?

On the other hand, Turner is suddenly the argument for cost certainty. It’s not being lazy, it’s being realistic. You want the next Justin Turner? Here, sign this one. He’s the actual Justin Turner, he’s really, really expensive, and maybe you just heard about him a couple years ago, but he’s also pretty good.

Before handing him a gigantic contract, though, Turner’s next team should probably consider all of the reasons he’s a rare baseball beast. Perhaps one who shouldn’t be trusted with a hefty four- or five-year deal just yet.

First off, there were reports from Anonymous Source that Turner didn’t hustle with the Mets. Since then we’ve had three years of positive reports and All-Star stats on him, but who are you going to believe? Your own eyes and mountains of evidence, or Anonymous Source? Think it over.

Second, Turner is 32 already. This might surprise you, considering you probably just heard of him a couple years ago, but it wouldn’t be baseball-strange for him to immediately decline in the first year of his contract, then get worse and worse. There might not even be that two- or three-year grace period that teams usually expect with their pricey free agents.

Third, the trend has been down in every season with Turner in most statistical categories. His average is down 65 points from his first season with the Dodgers. His OBP is down 65 points. His OPS is down 65 points. The only possible explanation is that he’s 6.5 percent worse, in my very advanced statistical opinion.

Except his slugging percentages have gone like this: .493, .491, .493. So even as there have been red flags with his average and on-base percentage, he’s been hitting for more and more power to make up for it. He went from someone who might be compared to Nick Punto to a 27-dinger-bashing future multimillionaire in just a couple years.

Fourth, Turner has been an unquestioned starter for, oh, 800 days or so. He just finished his first full major league season as a starter. He’s still something of an unknown, at least when it comes to a reasonable baseline value that you can expect without it seeming too optimistic. It doesn’t help that he’s been valuable in three very different ways over the last three years. It adds to the confusion.

In his first season with the Dodgers, he was an average-dependent utility infielder who was surely going to get eaten by the BABIPdook the next year. In his second season with them, he was a well-rounded player with a high average, high on-base percentage, and more than enough extra-base power. In his third season, he was a right-handed slugger with an average-ish OBP who couldn’t hit lefties. You figure out what to make of this guy as you slide a blank check across the table.

He’s also one of the best hitters available, and if you believe the ol’ ZiPS machine, he’s the best bet of the lot. The stats say you shouldn’t worry about his advancing age or late start — focus on his recent performance, which has been superb.

OK.

Still don’t trust him, though.

Maybe it’s the beard, unless that’s just me projecting.

Where’s Turner likely to go? Where should he go?

The Ideal

Oh, how I would enjoy putting the Giants here for trolling points, but they are already kinda sorta fine with the incumbent (Eduardo Nuñez) and they have a prospect who kinda sorta has a chance to be ready soon (Christian Arroyo). It wouldn’t shatter the fabric of hot stove reality if they signed Turner, but they’re rightfully focused on other positions, I’d think.

To the Astros would also be a good guess, if only because it would be a necessary step in the Alex Bregman for Chris Sale swap that makes sense in my mind. But I’m just a cup of coffee in, so I’m not fully responsible for these words, and I reserve the right to edit all this later.

So I’ll take the lead of the good folks at Viva El Birdos, who suggest Turner is a great fit for the Cardinals. With Matt Carpenter moving to first base, the in-house option is Jedd Gyorko, living proof that the Cardinals are masters of the dark arts, but they seem to like him as a super-utility type, not a 600 at-bat cornerstone.

The appeal of Turner to the Cardinals is obvious: he would be projected to be the Cardinals’ best player. The team is overflowing with starter-caliber players, but they lack high-end talent. Next year, Turner would be about a two-win improvement over the in-house options.

Sold.

The biggest turn-off is also obvious: Turner will almost certainly require draft pick compensation.

Oh, come on, like the Cardinals wouldn’t field a starting nine if you gave them $50, a Tom Emanski video, and nine 39th-round draft picks. They’ll be fine.

The Likely

He would be leaving the Dodgers, a team that still has money to spend, even if the latest headlines are about them cutting payroll. They still have room to re-sign Turner.

However, the Dodgers would still like to get under the luxury tax at some point, or they would like to take a blowtorch to the free agent market after 2018, when players like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are young in that A-Rod/Vlad way, where you don’t worry so much about the huge contracts. You know, Jason Heyward young.

To that end, they’ve made a big point of stashing away prospects like so many acorns, fully aware that they would be financially unstoppable with just a couple more low-cost players like Corey Seager and Joc Pederson. They just need to reach into that satchel and pull out a minor league version of Turner.

Except it’s not that easy. Willie Calhoun has power, but not patience, and he might be a couple years away. Prospects like Gavin Lux and Omar Estevez would rank much higher in a thinner system, but they’re still teenagers. This might be the one spot where the Dodgers would chase a high-priced veteran even if Turner wasn’t already used to Tommy Lasorda’s musk*, which is always a challenge for new players.

The best in-house bet would be Austin Barnes, who is a weirdo catcher-infielder hybrid. That would be a swap I could see the Dodgers making if it were a complementary player leaving, but not one for of their very best hitters.

There’s a chance to split the difference with a shorter-term deal to Luis Valbuena, replacing Turner’s power without annihilating the long-term dreams of fiscal prudence, and there are also potential trades for players that range from Brian Dozier to Evan Longoria. The Dodgers might not have the best options in the upper minors, but they sure picked a fine time to look for a third baseman.

The Dodgers still get even odds, though. They’ve seen what Turner can do, and they like it. A lot. They’re still the favorites, the perfect mix of money, need, and familiarity.

Prediction

Cardinals, four years, $80 million. The Dodgers just have too many trade options to commit millions and millions to a 32-year-old right now. It doesn’t fit what they’ve been patiently building toward.

And, really, is there a more Cardinals player than Justin Turner? It’s the perfect mix of doubles and “I can’t believe that guy beat us again,” crossed with the potential of him defying the aging process and infuriating you for a lot longer than expected. You can see it already.

* anise, hints of oak, and the sun-bleached carcass of a narwhal floating atop a pond of sulphur and regret