Of Washington’s four finalists in the National League’s major award categories, Trea Turner was the least-likely to win but arguably had the greatest impact.
It helps when you arrive largely as a mystery to opponents, who know little besides the fact you have blazing speed. It helps when you play only 73 games – about half the amount Daniel Murphy played – avoiding some inevitable slumps or, worse, injuries. And it helps when you deliver exactly what the team wanted when it called you up for good on July 10, sparking the offense from atop the lineup.
Turner had no shot at winning the NL Rookie of the Year award, which fittingly went to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ strapping shortstop, Corey Seager. He easily beat the Nationals’ center fielder for the honor, based on playing a full slate (157 games) and producing one of the league’s best all-around seasons.
But Turner’s inclusion among the finalists reflects the brilliance of his half-season. Even though he was stuck in the minors for the first three months, Turner led all rookies in triples (eight) and stolen bases (33), while finishing among the Top 10 in runs (53), hits (105), batting average (342), on-base percentage (.370) and slugging percentage (.567).
Don’t bother projecting what those numbers could look like over a full campaign. That practice – like the stat line he might’ve produced – is insane.
If Seager hadn’t been so dominant this season, Turner would have a better argument to be the winner. His selection wouldn’t have set a precedent, either. San Francisco Giants first baseman Willie McCovey was a unanimous NL ROY selection in 1959, despite playing a mere 52 games. Another short-timer this New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez, received strong consideration for AL ROY after playing just 53 games.
Turner didn’t come away with the trophy Monday, but he played a key role in general manager Mike Rizzo’s unofficial award for “Heist of the Century.” By acquiring Turner and right-hander Joe Ross for Steven Souza and minor-league lefty Travis Ott, Rizzo endeared himself to Nats fans and provided the team with a pair of building blocks moving forward.
While Ross’ contribution will be as a back-of-the-rotation starter or intriguing trade chip, Turner’s roster spot is cemented even as his position remains fluid. He’ll definitely bat leadoff when manager Dusty Baker fills out the lineup, but that’s the only certainty.
He could return to center, where he did an adequate job while learning on the fly. His speed helped make up for his inexperience in taking the proper routes. Turner also turned proved to be more than just a fast contact hitter, revealing surprising power in his wiry frame. Teams can do worse than him the middle surrounded by Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth.
But Turner’s natural position is shortstop, where his bat would have a greater impact relative to typical shortstops. My preference is moving him back to the infield and signing a big thumper – Yoenis Cespedes anyone? – or more of an on-base guy – hello Dexter Fowler? – to play in the outfield. The Nats have the flexibility to play Harper in the middle, if necessary, and let a newcomer man a corner.
“When Cespedes played for the Mets, the guy scared me,” Rizzo told reporters during the general manager meetings. “He’s a really good offensive player. He’s a really good two-way player. He’s a middle-of-the-lineup bat. He improves any team he plays for.”
That’s the effect Turner had on Washington. The Nats were 17 games over .500 (53-36) when Turner was placed atop the order for good. They finished the season at 28 games over .500 (95-67), with Turner winning Rookie of the Month awards in August and September.
“He’s been unfazed so far,” Baker told reporters prior to the NL Division Series. “He’s come here and just played and that’s what I urged him to do: just play. Just play ball the way God’s given you the ability to play. So far he’s handled it great. Even his mistakes he’s handled it great.
“You don’t see him making the same mistake too often, especially in a short period of time,” Baker said. “We don’t have to tell him things over and over and over. That’s what frustrates a coach is when you have to tell a young player a number of times in a short period of time. So far he’s been outstanding.”
We would be wise to resist projections of an encore performance next season. It’s foolish to expect back-to-back mind-boggling campaigns, especially when the first one was abbreviated. Besides, sophomores have been known to slump. The league will adjust to Turner and he’ll be forced to reciprocate, like every hotshot rookie who preceded him.
The Nats’ hopes for BWAA awards this week rest with Baker, Max Scherzer and Daniel Murphy, finalists Manager, Cy Young and Most Valuable Player, respectively. Turner doesn’t have any hardware to put on his shelf.
But he definitely has cleared a space in our hearts and a spot in the order.