Trea Turner and How Timing Impacts Late-Round Strategy

I’m always torn when setting a draft date for a fantasy league, particularly a redraft one. Most people I play with generally want the draft to be as close to the start of the regular season as possible, which makes sense – the longer you wait, the more information becomes available, and the more certainty players have, especially when it comes to playing-time estimates.

Depending on your level of risk-seeking, the depth of the league, and your confidence in finding early-season waiver-wire sleepers, an earlier draft might be your preference. It’s certainly mine. In those cases, I’m comfortable using picks in the later rounds on sleepers who may or may not make a team, trusting that if they wind up optioned to the minor leagues (or designated for assignment, as it were), I’ll be able to plug someone in out of the free-agent bin comparable to a “floor” pick I could have otherwise used that selection on.

The longer you wait to do your draft, the less opportunity there is to take those playing-time-uncertain fliers. Either those players will be deemed to be without a job, or others will have grown wise to their hold on a job, bidding the price up.

My favorite example to illustrate the impact of draft timing this year is Trea Turner, the No. 2 prospect of the potential NL East-champion Washington Nationals.

With shortstop thin on inspiring fantasy names, Turner cracking the Nationals’ everyday lineup would be a major boon for fantasy players. The 22-year-old has solid contact skills, gets on base at a high enough clip to project as a high-order bat, if not one immediately, and has enough speed that, all told, he’d be fringe-startable in standard formats (at second or short) the minute manager Dusty Baker installed him as the full-time choice at the position.

Unfortunately, that’s long seemed unlikely to happen, for a few reasons, many of which Brad Johnson covered off well in examining the Nationals’ playing time battles. As a refresher, there are three primary reasons the Nationals may prefer Turner to spend at least a couple of months in the minors.

Service Time: Always the big one with prospects, Turner has already chewed up 45 days of service on his clock, posting a .225/295/.325 triple-slash line in 44 plate appearances last season. The Nationals would likely hang on to an extra year of control if he were to stay in the minors until sometime in June, and while that shouldn’t be the foremost priority for a team decidedly in win-now mode, it’s one heck of a tiebreaker.

Organizational Depth: Turner has options, and so if the Nationals decide to send him down, he remains a fill-in candidate later in the year. Cutting Danny Espinosa or Stephen Drew, the presumed starter and utility man, would threaten that organizational depth. Baker has a reputation for preferring veterans, but part of what goes into that thinking is likely that keeping youngsters makes the entire organization a little less flexible.

Turner’s Development: Turner struck out in 27.3 percent of his plate appearances during his cup of coffee, and while that’s far too small a sample to judge him on, that, combined with just 205 plate appearances at Triple-A, suggest additional seasoning wouldn’t hurt. That’s particularly true if the team wants him to refine his defense, as there’s some thought he may need to move to second long-term. It would also give him additional time to let his power develop – he may eventually reach double-digits, solid for a middle infielder, but that potential is yet to fully manifest.

Concerns over playing time have understandably conspired to supress his price a little bit. He’s still getting drafted, which suggests there are people taking a draft-and-see approach with him, but his rankings are all over the place. Rotographs rankers put him anywhere from 11th to 33rd, and he ranked 20th overall, and even that’s higher than I’m seeing most other places.

That rankings chasm is due to similar variance in playing time estimates. Steamer has him for 390 plate appearances, while Fans have him at 506, and a poll Jeff Zimmerman conducted had him at 74 games (about 300 PA). Most project he’ll miss the Opening Day roster with an early arrival time, betting that Drew – probably best utilized as a left-handed hitting utilityman than an everyday player – or Espinosa – an entirely replaceable player who Baker has all but confirmed will start – (or even Daniel Murphy) will stumble or get hurt. Turner’s going to be needed at some point this year, it just might not be right away.

“He ran through the minor leagues fairly quickly with the Padres and with us,” general manager Mike Rizzo said on the Buster Olney podcast last week. “He’s got one full season of minor league baseball under his belt. He’s a guy that could use some more at bats in the minor leagues.” He also said Turner is “not far away,” while Baker said on MLB Network Radio that there’s an “outside” chance Turner could take the opening-day gig, pointing to the team’s need for speed and right-handed bats. “It’s just that we don’t know how Trea is going to hit yet.”

The early returns are discouraging, with Turner slashing .158/.292/.315 in spring. He’s also hit a home run and stolen four bases, and he’s a player who’s shown an ability to make quick adjustments at earlier stops in his career. It just seems like he’ll be making said adjustments in Syracuse.

Having said all of that, were Turner to make the team, I really like him as a late-round flier. In early redrafts, I’ve taken a low-cost (about the 23rd-24th round) bet on him, hoping he beats out Espinosa or Drew for the starting gig. If he doesn’t, I’ll just cut bait once the season begins, if the format’s not amenable to holding him on a bench. His contact rate helps me look past his small-sample strikeout increase, and I think with 500 plate appearances, he could push something like a .270-7-50-40-20 line, staying conservative on runs and stolen bases.

That would put him on the fringes of the top-15 at either second or short, the latter of which he’d gain eligibility at quickly. Turner is the 17th shortstop off the board on average right now, and the names around him are less interesting floor-plays. I’d much rather use that pick on Turner and hold him for the next two weeks, giving myself a higher potential ceiling and making a dumpster dive if he doesn’t make the team. (If you’re one to quantify everything, you could calculate an Expected Performance stat-line that compares Turner and the likely waiver pick-up, weighted by the odds you give Turner of making the club, against that of a similarly drafted middle-infielder.)

With a late pick, it’s about the high-end possibility, not the 50th-percentile one. At least for me. For the next week or so, while playing time is still up in the air, I’ll continue looking for fliers like Turner with late picks rather than filling out a roster with safe options.

Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

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