The Blue Jays will have a new designated hitter for the 2024 season, announcing they’ve signed free agent Justin Turner to a one-year contract. It is reportedly a $13MM deal with The Vayner Sports client, who can earn an additional $1.5MM based on both roster bonuses and performance incentives, taking his deal to a maximum of $14.5MM.
Turner turned 39 years old in November but certainly wasn’t showing any signs of his age in 2023, when he slashed .276/.345/.455 with 23 home runs, 31 doubles, an 8.1% walk rate and a 17.6% strikeout rate in 146 games and 626 plate appearances with the Red Sox.
By measure of wRC+, Turner was about 14% better than league-average at the plate — his incredible tenth consecutive season being at least 14% above par with the bat. He was one of the top remaining corner infield and designated hitter options and will install a “professional hitter” into the Toronto lineup — one who is generally revered for his leadership and clubhouse presence as well.
The consistency Turner brings to the plate is rather remarkable. He hasn’t batted lower than .275, posted an OBP under .339, slugged less than .438 or struck out in more than 18% of his plate appearances in any of the past ten seasons since establishing himself as a regular with the Dodgers in 2014. Overall, he’s a .293/.371/.486 hitter in that time. He’s averaged 24 home runs and 35 doubles per 162 games played over that decade-long span.
Turner’s contract with the Red Sox was a two-year, $22.7MM contract, the second season of which was a player option. He took home an $8.3MM salary in 2023 and also received a $6.7MM buyout on the option when he turned it down to return to the open market. Turner is guaranteed less on this new contract than he was a year ago, although with incentives he’ll be able to nearly match the $15MM he ultimately received for his lone year in Boston. And, given that the player option was a net $7.7MM call for him, he still clearly came out ahead in his decision to decline his player option.
With the Jays, Turner figures to serve as their primary designated hitter but can also split time at the hot corner with fellow free agent signee Isiah Kiner-Falefa (or another yet-to-be-made acquisition). He’s also logged 527 career innings at first base, including 289 last year in Boston, making him a viable option to spell Vladimir Guerrero Jr. when he needs a breather as well.
If there’s one drawback to the match between the two parties, from the team’s vantage point, it’s that Turner adds another right-handed bat to a lineup that already skews heavily toward that side of the plate. He’s effectively replacing the left-handed-hitting Brandon Belt, who notably remains unsigned and had a strong year at the plate for the Jays in 2023 in a heavily platooned role.
As it stands, left fielder Daulton Varsho, center fielder Kevin Kiermaier and infielder Cavan Biggio are the only lefties projected in the Toronto lineup. No one from that group is an especially formidable lefty presence, and all are best served in a platoon arrangement. Turner has slightly better career numbers against righties than lefties, which helps to mitigate some of the concern, but the Jays could still struggle against premium right-handed pitchers at times, given their lack of balance in the lineup.
Thus far, Turner marks the biggest upgrade to the Toronto lineup of the offseason. The Jays made a spirited run at Shohei Ohtani and also met with Yoshinobu Yamamoto, but both players wound up signing with the Dodgers. The Jays were also said to have strong interest in lefty-swinging Joc Pederson before he inked a comparable deal to Turner’s with the D-backs.
The Jays have been tied to a number of bat-first players over the past month, talking to representatives for free agent sluggers like J.D. Martinez, Jorge Soler, Rhys Hoskins and Pederson. Their interest to Turner dates back to at least mid-December, and now that it’s manifested in a deal, the Jays are presumably out of the running for yet-unsigned DH options like Martinez and Soler. Turner joins Kiner-Falefa, Kiermaier and now-former NPB righty-hander Yariel Rodriguez as notable free agent pickups for the Jays so far in the 2023-24 offseason.
The addition of Turner should push the Blue Jays firmly into luxury tax territory. Toronto had a bottom-line payroll of $228MM before agreeing to terms with Turner, per Roster Resource, and the Jays were already slightly north of $237MM luxury barrier. Turner will move both numbers forward by $13MM. Since the Jays are a second-time payor of the tax, their penalty will be rather light: a simple 30% tax on the first $20MM by which they exceed the threshold and another 42% tax for the next $20MM, if further additions are forthcoming.
With regard to the Turner signing, they’ll end up paying $3.9MM in luxury penalties, which clearly wasn’t a significant deterrent for them. The $240MM Opening Day payroll for which the Jays are now projected stands as a franchise-record by a magnitude of $30MM — topping last the $210MM high-water mark previously established just last year.
Looking ahead, it still seems possible there are further moves to be made for the Jays, who currently project to divide playing time at second base and third base among Biggio, Kiner-Falefa, Davis Schneider and Santiago Espinal. Schneider, in particular, had an intriguing 2023 debut when he hit .276/.404/.603 — but that was a tiny sample of 141 plate appearances and came with a .369 BABIP in addition to a 30.5% strikeout rate. Some regression should surely be expected. Kiner-Falefa is best known for his defensive versatility and is a better utility option than everyday player. Biggio had a solid 2023 showing at the dish but has never come close to replicating his 2019-20 numbers. Espinal is coming off a career-worst .248/.310/.335 performance.
In the rotation, Toronto is still facing some uncertainty at the back end of the group. Kevin Gausman, Chris Bassitt and a resurgent Jose Berrios form a strong top three, but Yusei Kikuchi has lacked consistency on a year-to-year basis and Alek Manoah struggled through a catastrophic season on the mound. The aforementioned Rodriguez could eventually be a rotation option, but that’s more likely in 2025, as he’ll be on a strict innings count this season. Top prospect Ricky Tiedemann could debut in 2024 as well but thus far has just four innings above the Double-A level.
The Blue Jays have been tied to several high-profile and still-unsigned names — Cody Bellinger, Blake Snell and Matt Chapman among them. Re-signing Chapman is a cleaner fit from a roster construction standpoint, as Toronto has Varsho, Kiermaier and George Springer across the outfield and now Turner at designated hitter, making a rotation including the DH spot more difficult. Adding another bat and/or rotation piece would help to lessen the sting of missing out on top targets earlier in the winter, though it remains unclear how much more ownership is willing to spend after already soaring past the franchise’s prior spending levels.