I don’t want to see anybody except Trea Turner bat leadoff again for the Washington Nationals until — let me count this on my fingers, that would be — 2022. Turner, who recently turned 23, is ready now. It is the Nats’ job to find a place to play him. My solution would be simple: Keep Turner in center field, where the Nats had him working when he was at Syracuse in Class AAA last month and where he started Tuesday night in Cleveland, and give him the job to lose. Then make Ben Revere a (good) fourth outfielder.
In the Nats’ recent homestand, Turner showed repeatedly why he is the ignition switch that the offense needs in a season when Revere and Michael A. Taylor have generated the least production out of the leadoff spot in baseball. You can jack up an entire offense if you radically improve the impact of your leadoff man. That’s Turner.
On Sunday, he slashed a liner into the right field corner, tripped rounding second base, momentarily lost his balance and still reached third without any hint of a close play. Last week, he also tripled off the right-center field wall and into the left field corner (without even drawing a tag) on a ball I’ve almost never seen turned into a triple. Statcasts said Turner went home to third at 22.7 mph, the fastest speed on any triple this season.
In 11 games with the Nationals, he’s hitting .279, reaching base three times with a stolen base and run scored in Tuesday’s 7-6 loss. But what would you expect? In three rapid years roaring through the minors, he hit .316. Most important, in 131 games in Class AAA in 2015 and 2016, Turner hit .306 with 49 extra-base hits, 92 runs, 39 steals in 43 attempts and an .821 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
In the just-concluded homestand, Turner also stole four bases, one of them a theft of home plate as part of a double steal and another Sunday when he semi-deliberately got picked off by Matt Thornton, then beat the throw-and-tag to second base by five feet.
Please, let Davey Lopes polish this talent who, at all levels, is 83 for 95 in steals.
“Offensively, Trea is ready now,” Nats Manager Dusty Baker said. And GM Mike Rizzo agrees.
Turner is the kind of quick-twitch athlete who’s not going to be bothered by most fastballs. But he’s going to strike out more in the Show than he has in the minors. He’ll improve on that, but it will take time. He misses good moving sinkers down-and-in from right-handers, rather than fouling them off. Off-speed can fool him at times. Teams are already “junking him” because they see he can smoke the fastball, even inside at the belt. But if he hits .270 right now, he’ll run wild. And, like all speedsters and contact hitters, he tends to be less bothered by elite pitchers than sluggers are.
To understand how much Turner can help, and how quickly, you have to grasp how awful the Nats’ leadoff hitters have been this season: a combined .212 average (next-worst team, .232) and .256 on-base percentage (next-worst team, .286). Unforgivable: Half of all teams get an on-base percentage from .340 to .390 from their leadoff spot. In the entire organization, the only Nat whose history suggests he might get over .350 someday is Turner.
Taylor has already been sent to AAA to work on decreasing his strikeouts. What about Revere? Let’s not just judge him on his bad 2016, with a .216 average and .263 on-base mark, but on 2014 through 2016 combined. There, he’s hit .291 but with only a .321 on-base percentage. He has a wonderful baseball disposition, always energized.
But Revere, 28, has no power, seldom walks and his ability to steal bases seems to be diminishing. In 2014, he got on base 201 times and had 49 steals — almost 25 percent of the time. In 2015, that dropped to 31 steals in 214 times on base — or about 1 in 7. This year, 10 steals in 68 times on base — the same 1-in-7 ratio. The sample is tiny, but Turner has four steals (in four attempts) in just 13 times on base so far this year.
Turner is a key part of the future — somewhere. Danny Espinosa is a free agent after 2017 and Daniel Murphy after 2018. So Turner is going to end up being a middle infielder. But with Revere “only” signed through 2017, it’s time to try the center field experiment. If it doesn’t work, you switch back. That won’t taste good, but with two months in center, you get a sense as to whether you want Turner out there in the playoffs. (The Nats are now at 95.2 percent probability to make the postseason.)
Asked about center field Sunday, Turner said: “I did it in Syracuse. I’ve embraced it, I guess. I got to a couple of tough balls. I made all the plays. But [in MLB] you’d have to learn how to play all the walls [in different parks]. There’d be a lot to learn.”
Turner, who’s played mostly shortstop his whole career, has a stronger arm than Revere, who is below average for a center fielder. Turner would probably be about average. In three weeks, we might all say, “You just can’t risk this novice in center field.”
Okay, if that’s how it goes, live with it. But now is the time to give it a try, when Turner still has 63 games to learn more about the position before the playoffs arrive.
On Sunday, I talked with Baker about various ways to play Turner more, or regularly, after Ryan Zimmerman returns from the disabled list and goes back to first base. Baker doesn’t want to jerk multiple players around in some exotic rotation and doesn’t “want to mess” with Murphy by playing him at multiple positions when he’s hitting .355.
Speaking generally, not specifically about Turner, Baker said, “I prefer to make moves that only impact one position in the lineup.”
Speaking specifically, why not put Turner in center full-time and make Revere a versatile and perhaps valuable fourth outfielder? Contenders need to manufacture runs and score early with speed against elite starters in the playoffs. This is virtually certain to be Turner’s role for years. So you might as well get started now.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.