Trea Turner and the Recent History of Outfield Conversions

Nearly a month ago to the day, Dave Cameron wrote an article for this very site praising the Washington Nationals for their patience regarding Trea Turner’s place as the club’s shortstop of the future, in deference to veteran Danny Espinosa. Espinosa had hit well up to that point, and has long graded not only as a plus defender at a premium position, but as a plus base-runner as well. In other words, Espinosa’s play at short was as good or better than what could’ve been reasonably expected from the rookie Turner, validating the team’s decision to hold Turner down in the minors for further development and/or for service time reasons.

Since that post was published, Espinosa’s been on fire. He’s essentially had the best 20-game offensive stretch of his career, putting up a 144 wRC+ over 79 plate appearances, and if it wasn’t clear already that Turner wouldn’t be taking over shortstop anytime soon, it is now. Espinosa is in no position to lose his job. Neither is Daniel Murphy, the club’s second baseman (the only other position at which Turner had played at the time of Cameron’s article), who’s arguably been the National League’s best hitter.

Turner couldn’t appear more blocked, which is why, even though he was recalled from the minors two weeks ago when Ryan Zimmerman hit the disabled list, manager Dusty Baker offered the following quote:

“Right now, there’s no real place for Trea to take.”

Except, something else has happened since the publication of Cameron’s article. Turner began to learn the outfield. He made his center-field debut in Triple-A on June 27, and started six games in center before his recall to the majors. He worked with minor-league outfield coordinator Gary Thurman on deep routes, playing balls off the wall and reading spin. He went errorless in his six games and recorded an outfield assist to third base following an overthrown caught stealing attempt at second.

Enjoy this utterly meaningless .gif of Turner tracking down a line drive in center, which I’m embedding if not only because I took the time to find it:

Now, he’s in the majors, on the same roster as Ben Revere and Michael Taylor. Revere and Taylor, who have combined to produce -0.2 Wins Above Replacement for the first-place Nationals in 456 starts. As a group, Nationals center fielders have combined for a 61 wRC+, tied for the third-worst mark from the position in baseball. Revere has been one of baseball’s very worst hitters, and has never graded particularly well in center to boot. Taylor’s bat has just never looked major league-caliber; he’s been dreadful against same-handed pitching, and even with the platoon advantage he’s fallen short of being a league-average hitter.

General Manager Mike Rizzo has called Turner’s bat major league-ready. At the very least, he’s an upgrade offensively over Revere and Taylor. Even if Revere shouldn’t be expected to continue hitting as poorly as he has this season, the projections only see him as an 80 wRC+ hitter moving forward. Taylor’s forecast is even less appealing, at a 74 wRC+. Turner’s 89 wRC+ projection is easily the best of the group, and he’s been putting together the best offensive season of his minor-league career in Triple-A. Turner has truly elite, 70-grade speed, which means he could have an advantage on the base paths even over the speedy Revere. The only difference is the defense.

Granted, six games of experience is six games of experience, and handing center field over to Turner on a near full-time basis would be a risky move for a first-place club, even one being given a 90% chance of capturing their division. But given Turner’s perceived offensive edge of the incumbent candidates, and the fact that club’s regular center fielder in Revere isn’t exactly a defensive maestro, it might be something worth considering.

After all, it isn’t like Turner would be the first middle infielder to successfully move to the outfield grass. Just look at former Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond, whose transition to one of baseball’s most impressive center fielders couldn’t have gone much more smoothly. Mookie Betts had just a few weeks of outfield experience before taking over as Boston’s center fielder and racking up 11 Defensive Runs Saved in 2014-15. Lonnie Chisenhall had only four games in right field at Triple-A last year before playing well enough to lead the American League in DRS in barely a third of a year, completing the same transition that turned Alex Gordon into a four-time Gold Glove Award winner. On the other side of Cleveland’s outfield, Jose Ramirez has held his own in left despite an almost total lack of outfield experience on his ascent through the minors. Odubel Herrera and Juan Lagares each came up as shortstops before turning themselves into plus defenders in center at the major-league level; the list of successful conversions goes on.

And, sure, memories of Hanley Ramirez in left field or Miguel Sano in right may cast a shadow on the legitimacy of Turner’s prospects in center, but Ramirez was a 31-year-old with a long history both of injuries and defensive indifference who was no longer capable of holding down shortstop. Sano was a 260-pound behemoth being asked to track down line drives in the gap. Turner’s been one of the minor league’s best athletes, who clearly possesses the speed to stick in center with an arm that some scouts question can stick at short anyway. For what it’s worth, Thurman doesn’t “think there’s any doubt” that Turner can make the more-than-routine plays in center.

The Nationals have been rumored to be seeking an outfield upgrade in addition to browsing some high-profile relief options, while Baker maintains that center field “isn’t a tryout camp,” instead playing Turner at second base while Murphy nurses a sore hamstring. When Murphy returns to full strength, there’s also a case to be made for simply shifting him to first base — with or without the presence of a healthy Zimmerman — and letting Turner handle second with Zimmerman assuming the small side of a platoon. But the team’s rumored activity on the trade market suggests they think an upgrade in the outfield and in the bullpen is more dire. Plenty of solid late-inning relief options exist on the market, and it’s possible that’s where their resources might better be used, because the Nationals could already have their center fielder of the now in Trea Turner.

We hoped you liked reading Trea Turner and the Recent History of Outfield Conversions by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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WhyCantWeHavePeace
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WhyCantWeHavePeace

I think you mean former Nationals shortstop Desmond, not Rangers.

Anyway, great article and looking forward to seeing what this young man can do for rhe Nats!