The Red Sox dodged a bullet Monday when it was revealed that the wild pitch that smashed Justin Turner’s face did not break any bones or cause any long-term damage, and that he should be back on the field before long. The Red Sox will need JT’s experience and righthanded bat this season if they are to have any hope of competing in the gauntlet of a division that they play in. Adding him to the 60-day Injured List alongside Trevor Story could have potentially derailed this train before it even left the station.
Kiké Hernandez personally recruited Justin Turner away from the Los Angeles Dodgers to help him create a positive culture in the Boston Red Sox locker room. And while there’s no question that JT will help instill a lighthearted, enjoyable clubhouse atmosphere, there are certainly some questions regarding how much gas he has left in the tank.
Is Justin Turner capable of being an impact player on the diamond in 2023?
As much as anybody up to and including Clayton Kershaw, Turner had been a key cog and clubhouse leader throughout the decade-long run of excellence the Dodgers have enjoyed since he arrived in LA in 2014. He’s reached the playoffs in each of the last nine years, played in three World Series, won a fake championship, and even secured a 2017 NLCS MVP award. He was never the best player on any of these Dodgers teams, but for the past several years he was widely renowned as the emotional backbone … the glue of the team. Always smiling, always picking up his teammates, always encouraging the young guys, and, most importantly, always playing hard.
Until 2022, Turner was one of the best under-the-radar players in baseball. Only making two All-Star teams thanks to playing third base in a league also featuring Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado, Turner placed in the top 14 in the NL MVP voting three times. His career slash line is a sneaky great .289/.366/.466/.832, with career 162-game average statistics including 19 HRs, 77 RBI, 76 runs scored, 34 doubles, and 152 hits.
While JT has always been able to ball, the power drain he suffered last year has many around the game wondering if he is over the hill at age 38.
Nagging injuries limited him to 128 games last season, and it’s doubtful he was near 100% at any point during the year. He split his time as a third baseman and DH, his reduced production leading most of the baseball world to believe that his days as a full-time position player are long gone. His slugging percentage dropped .033 points from 2021, his OPS dropped .044 points, and he had the slowest sprint speed of any third baseman in the league at 25.0 feet per second.
Turner has been earmarked as Boston’s regular DH for 2023. He will spell Rafael Devers at third base on occasion, and he will likely fill in at first base for rookie Triston Casas against certain lefthanded starting pitchers. Barring an injury parade similar to the one the Red Sox faced last year, I’ll be surprised if JT plays more than 30 games in the field this season.
The hope is that primarily being a one-way player will reduce the daily wear and tear on Turner’s body to the point where he can be productive all season long. The Dodgers used a similar strategy at the start of 2022, moving Turner into a half-and-half role where he played 66 games at third base and 62 at DH, which resulted in a significant drop in production nonetheless. The Red Sox hope that cutting his time in the field in half yet again in 2023 may help them squeeze some more pop out of his bat.
Turner did not have a terrible 2022 by any stretch of the imagination. He hit a very respectable .278/.350/.438/.788 with 81 RBI, though it’s worth noting that he hit in the middle of a loaded Dodgers lineup with an ongoing carousel of traffic on the base paths in front of him. Wear and tear aside, his second-half stats are encouraging. While he only played 44 games after the break last season (compared to the 84 he played in the first half), he hit at a .319/.386/.503/.889 clip with 15 doubles, 5 HRs and 30 RBI.
The interesting thing about Turner’s 2022 was his first- and second-half splits, which were quite the opposite from what you’d expect from a 37-year-old whose career is winding down. Aside from a 12-game absence due to an abdominal injury from late July through early August, he didn’t miss any significant time last season. He was in the lineup nearly every day, with Dodgers manager Dave Roberts sitting him on occasion throughout the year to manage his workload. It’s not like he started out strong before fizzling out during the dog days of summer a la JD Martinez the last two seasons. On the contrary, Turner toiled and struggled through the first half, his batting average dropping as low as .206 on June 17th. He picked it up from there though, hitting .400 in July, .314 in August, and .322 in September.
Regardless, it’s clear that Turner is on the back nine of his career. Anyone who expects to see him rekindle the kind of pop he showed two years ago (.278/.361/.471/.832, 27 HR, 87 RBI) is kidding themselves. However, that doesn’t mean he can’t contribute in the middle of the Red Sox order hitting between Rafael Devers and Masataka Yoshida, where most pundits seem to have him projected to hit. Personally, I see Alex Cora’s Opening Day lineup looking something like this.
Kiké Hernandez SS
Rafael Devers 3B
Justin Turner DH
Masataka Yoshida LF
Adam Duvall CF
Alex Verdugo RF
Triston Casas 1B
Christian Arroyo 2B
Reese McGuire C
That’s not the lineup I would personally field, but then again I’ve never been an advocate of the current MLB trend of putting your biggest bat in the two-hole. Moving Devers to the three spot would alter the whole left-right balance and change the batting order quite a bit. I’ll offer my ideal lineup in next week’s column.
As for Turner, I think the second half of last season showed that he is not done being a good Major League hitter. He hit 36 doubles during a down year playing in Dodger Stadium, far from a hitter’s paradise. He’s a righthanded pull-hitter that will play half his games at Fenway Park, so the green monster will likely convert several of those LA doubles into Boston home runs. He is also a contact hitter, having struck out 100 times in only one season in his career. The banning of the defensive shift will keep opposing second basemen on the right side of the bag, which should net dead pull-hitters like him a couple handfuls of extra singles.
In a lineup short of righthanded impact bats at a time when Trevor Story is indefinitely on the shelf, Justin Turner and Adam Duvall will be expected to immediately step into the middle of the Red Sox order and deliver. That means contributing a lot more than passing helpful tips onto younger players and keeping veterans loose and confident. It means staying on the field, giving quality at bats, and knocking clutch hits all season long.
There’s no doubt that JT will be a great character guy that can help Kiké Hernandez transform last year’s negative clubhouse vibes into a culture that fosters a winning atmosphere. With fellow ex-Dodgers Hernandez, Verdugo, Chris Martin, and Kenley Jansen once again wearing the same uniform, Lord knows he’ll have plenty of familiar faces to make him feel right at home. A good atmosphere, however, can turn bad really quickly if the guys on the roster can’t outscore the team in the other dugout.
Is Justin Turner still the kind of player that can help put crooked numbers on the board?