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The New DH In Town? Is This a Head-Scratcher or a Head-Turner?

With J.D. Martinez’s departure and the arrival of Justin Turner, “who’s better?” is an easy question to ask. But with that question comes even more confusing questions to follow.

Los Angeles Dodgers v. San Diego Padres Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

While many are clamoring for Chaim Bloom’s departure following the departure of Xander Bogaerts and the unceremonious DFA of pieces of the roster that only just got here, such as Eric Hosmer, Hoy Park, and Jeter Downs, the Red Sox front office is, well, barely at work.

On a Sunday afternoon when many cared much more about a Patriots game than baseball offseason transactions, Bloom still made a move many called questionable, even if it paled in comparison to Jakobi Meyer’s decision to lateral the ball backwards in a tie game with the clock at zero. In about the third quarter of that heartbreaker, Jon Heyman announced the Red Sox were in talks with 38-year-old World Series Champion, two time All-Star Justin Turner, and the Red Sox fans who have witnessed their team be “in serious talks” with Bogaerts, Kodai Senga, and Dansby Swanson, among others in the past few days, collectively said “haha, yeah, sure, whatever you say, dude!” Except, this time, the talks really were serious. Like, putting a pen to paper as we speak serious.

And so, just a day after J.D. Martinez left Boston for the west coast (where have we heard this before?) on a one-year, $10-million deal from the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Red Sox answered the “so what happens to Justin Turner now?” question by signing the 2022 Roberto Clemente Award winner to a 2-year, deal worth $22-million. The contract includes an opt-out after the 2023 season. So, while Mookie has an old friend joining him in LA in the 11-year veteran, Kiké Hernandez has some reconnections to make with an old buddy from the west. And I just want to emphasize old pretty quickly; although J.D., at 35, was no spring chicken, Justin Turner is 38. On paper, it seems as though the Red Sox have swapped out a veteran presence with a trusty but waning bat another veteran presence with a trusty but waning bat.

So, naturally, following these two transactions, the question from fans on both sides of the Chaim fence (however scarce the “he’s doing alright” side appears to be right now) is “so what was the better signing?” And while it would be a defensible stance to just keep the devil we know, since that devil has been a major part of a World Series run in 2018 as well as a notable figure in a deep playoff run in 2021, it’s no secret that Martinez’s productivity has slouched. His batting average and OBP have dropped a hair since 2021 and a considerable amount since 2019 (I’ll do him a favor and leave 2020 out of this.) His WAR has absolutely plummeted, and his isolated power is now significantly below .200, which is never a good sign. On top of that, he grounded into 20 double plays, a pretty high number that felt even higher, and… uh… oh yeah! He can’t play defense. While he still had some clutch hits in him in 2022, to say that J.D. would not be fetching 19 million dollars anymore would be a highly reasonable statement. Still, seeing him settle for about half of that in Los Angeles felt like Chaim was betraying some Sox faithful, especially in an offseason that’s seen him and John Henry refuse to pony up offers that could considerably build up a reputable offensive lineup. So, when Justin Turner was signed for around the same amount, panic set in before it quietly bubbled back downward. Because, flat out, Justin Turner can still play baseball pretty well.

Turner, like Martinez, had his three best seasons in 2014, 2018, and 2019 (not in order), and since, he’s been hovering around the same batting average and OBP. He does take a miniscule percentage more walks than J.D., but he strikes out far less. (16.7% compared to 24.3% in 2022, and that difference has stayed about steady in recent years.) Also, in that all-important isolated power stat that designated hitters are often judged upon, Turner bats slightly less than Martinez (and it wasn’t even a competition until Martinez’s recent dip) but his wRC+ is almost identical. For a guy who’s also had to play defense until recently, I’ll take that bat, but let’s isolate that defensive play for a bit, shall we?

Justin Turner is, by definition, a third baseman. Given that there are a lot of moving pieces to this offseason, that’s a huge acquisition. It allows flexibility to allow Rafael Devers, himself awaiting a gargantuan extension (God, we can only hope) to play DH a bit more. Not that J.D. was playing a ton of outfield in his time in Boston, but for the moment, that position looks a little less penciled in than the infield, especially given Xander’s recent departure along with the fact that Kiké can play almost any position.

Across Justin Turner’s 14-year career, he has played 133 career games at second base, not an insignificant amount given the question marks surrounding career shortstop Trevor Story, and, to a lesser degree, platoon guys like Christian Arroyo’s rightful place on the field. He’s also played 46 games at shortstop and 39 at first base, and if it’s one thing this team likes doing besides spending money, it’s trying guys at new positions. I’d guess that’s even the case if a player is 38 years old! Signing Turner gives Cora the option (emphasis on option since I hope that’s how it stays) to play around with his personnel a bit. It also gives a bit of legs to the narrative of sticking Turner at third and seeing how the young slugger Devers might do at, say, first base while Triston Casas earns his legs he’s sure to find in this league.... however distant that ‘Devers playing another position’ reality may seem. But, putting the ugly truth that Story was possibly brought in to backdoor Bogaerts out aside, given zany 2022 decisions like starting Dalbec at short, Christian Vazquez getting some time playing first base, and… oh! Franchy Cordero playing, uhhh, just about anywhere, signing a guy who doesn’t have to just hit is definitely front of mind for Bloom, Henry and company, especially if he’s getting paid 8 figures. In fact, 2 years, $22 million may be enticing enough money for a 38-year-old with his best years (and 2 All-Star seasons) behind him, if even slightly, and if he likes uncertainty as to what he’ll be playing, where one can simply not put any fielding snafu past them, boy will he be at home on this team!

So, while most of the 2023 Boston Red Sox roster still has its question marks, I’d like to definitively say that giving J.D. Martinez the legroom to escape this confusing team while signing the guy who he’s replacing in his new home has some bright sides. And it probably does. But, as the offseason is long, especially this season, the best practice is probably to let the pieces fall as they may and figure it out when more signings get announced. After all, if we had more control on this roller coaster ride, this infield signing wouldn’t have fans hypothesizing about an Opening Day lineup because we’d for sure know who our shortstop would be. But, since we’re not billionaires who own the team, we can say: at least we paid !11 million a year to a guy who looks like Gritty. And hey, at least it’s a guy who looks like Gritty that can hit!

(P.S. Thanks for everything J.D. Even though I was cursing my screen for some of the last three years of watching you at the plate, you were an absolute force for the years prior to that, and a huge part of the juggernaut that was 2018. Best of luck, and tell Mookie we say hi!)`