The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Nats rarely keep homegrown stars. That should change for Trea Turner.

Trea Turner and Juan Soto, shown in 2020, could be long-term franchise cornerstones. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Trea Turner can’t be a free agent until after the 2022 season. Juan Soto can’t be a free agent until two years after that. Yet they both arrived in West Palm Beach, Fla., for the Washington Nationals’ first full-squad workout of the spring Tuesday facing questions about … free agency.

Thoughts on playing together for your entire careers, gentlemen?

“I would love to play here,” said Turner, the Nats’ MVP candidate of a shortstop. “And any time that guy’s on your team — I definitely don’t want him on the other team. Like to keep him here as long as possible. ... I think we have a great relationship. I think it goes without saying that we’d love to play with each other for a long time.”

Now, how to make that happen?

A potential contract extension for Soto became a pertinent topic last week because of the 14-year, $340 million deal landed by one of his 22-year-old peers, San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. From a global view, keeping Soto a National for life has to be something the Nats think about every day — even if he doesn’t.

“For me, right now, I’m playing baseball,” Soto said on a video call with reporters. “I forget about it. I’m just happy for [Tatis]; he gets his deal. But for me, my mind is on baseball.”

Boswell: The Nationals have just been shown the way: Give Juan Soto a big offer now.

Good idea, Juan. There’s time. Turner’s situation is more urgent. Much more. And he’s plain about what he would like.

“I would love to play here my entire career,” Turner said Tuesday. “I’ve said it in the past. I’ve always liked it here, and don’t think the grass is greener on the other side. ... I love it here. I love the atmosphere and the ballclub that [General Manager Mike] Rizzo and the coaching staff has put together every single year. We’ll see. I think those talks have happened in the past, and hopefully they’ll happen in the future.”

The future has to be this spring — for a few reasons. First, the closer a player gets to free agency, the more he can sense the potential excitement of letting 30 teams have the opportunity to tell him how wonderful he is. With just 162 games between you and a potential bidding war, it becomes easier to think, “Well, I’ve made it this far ...”

Turner is familiar with all of those dynamics.

“It’s risk versus reward,” he said. “It’s a simple concept, but it’s very hard to come to an answer. Do you feel like you’ve played your best baseball? Do you feel like you have way more to prove? Do you want to bet on yourself? Do you want to have security?

“I think a lot of these things you can’t put a blanket answer on every player. Each individual has a different family situation, different thoughts about a city, different confidence in themselves or interest in the game or whatever it may be.”

The Nationals’ first full-squad workout sounded a bit like spring

At play here, too, is the reality that, since they moved to Washington 16 years ago, the Nationals have re-signed only two homegrown players before they reached free agency: Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg. As much as fans wrung their hands over so many of the departures, Rizzo has very little to regret. Turner was already in place to replace Ian Desmond; Jordan Zimmermann’s career went south once he left Washington; and the Nats won the World Series in their first year without Bryce Harper. The loss of Anthony Rendon — a cornerstone third baseman — remains difficult to digest, but it’s possible to retool with new parts.

Still, at some point, it would be nice to be a franchise that hangs on to more of its own. Rizzo and his staff built a robust player development machine that, at the moment, is thin in part because they have traded prospects for major league pieces. There’s value, too, in watching them develop and stay. Turner, acquired as a minor leaguer in one of Rizzo’s best trades, would be a perfect place to start.

“He’s one of the most exciting players in the game — he really is,” Manager Dave Martinez said Tuesday. “The things that he can do out there, the sky is the limit. The good thing is he wants to get better. He wants to be the best.”

He’s already among the best, even if not everyone realizes it. Since New York acquired shortstop Francisco Lindor in a January trade with Cleveland, the assumption in baseball has been that the Mets, behind new ownership, will sign Lindor to an extension before he reaches free agency in the offseason. If that happens, note the terms of that deal — because they apply directly to Turner.

Lindor is a four-time all-star. Turner has never appeared in the All-Star Game. Lindor has played in 236 more games than Turner. If the “Who’s the best shortstop in the game?” conversation is held, Lindor is inevitably mentioned, Turner less so.

And yet, here is Lindor’s career average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage slash line: .285/.346/.488. Here is Turner’s: .296/.353/.480. The result: for their career, identical .833 on-base-plus-slugging percentages. Lop off Turner’s 27-game debut late in the 2015 season, and he has an .837 OPS. Over that span, only three shortstops can top that: Trevor Story, who benefits by playing in Colorado’s thin air (.877); Corey Seager of the Los Angeles Dodgers (.856); and Boston’s Xander Bogaerts (.844).

Lindor is a better defensive player, which matters at shortstop. Still, he and Turner are both 27. The Mets may well try to build around Lindor. Will the Nats make Turner — and Soto — building blocks, too?

Meet the new and improved NL East, baseball’s nastiest division

It’s such a nice thought. Buy a jersey and wear it out over a player’s entire career — not just his first six years.

“When you have guys that started in their early 20s and then they’re going through their mid-20s and they’re an important part of your team,” Turner said, “I think having that culture is easier to build when you have those people and you’re not interchanging so many parts in that core of guys. You can add here and there and not miss a beat.”

This isn’t, of course, just on the Nats. Turner and/or Soto have to understand that a team that commits to a player for a decade or more is taking on risk, too. It’s a compromise. It’s a negotiation.

But let’s hope it works. On the day of the first full-squad workout of 2021, Trea Turner deftly and thoughtfully handled any and all questions about what it would be like to get a long-term deal to remain in Washington. A year from now, which would be a year from free agency, that would be a harder performance to pull off.

Read more about the Nationals:

Addition of Rogelio Armenteros deepens Nationals’ pool of possible starters

Stephen Strasburg is confident that carpal tunnel issues are behind him

Dave Martinez, contract extension in hand, looks forward at Nationals spring training

Max Scherzer, dealing with an ankle sprain, eager to get back on the mound at Nats camp