How Long Can The Washington Nationals Keep Trea Turner Down?

Sep 3, 2015; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals shortstop Trea Turner (7) throws during the seventh inning against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 3, 2015; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals shortstop Trea Turner (7) throws during the seventh inning against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports /

The Washington Nationals are keeping top prospect Trea Turner down due to service time issues. But with their grasp on the division quickly slipping, how long can they wait?

After losing again last night to the Detroit Tigers by a score of 5-4, the Washington Nationals now find themselves trailing the New York Mets for the division lead in the NL East. Dropping six of their last eight, Washington has nearly wasted their hot start, now just 20-13 and in danger of being caught by the upstart Phillies.  The NL East is going to be a tough division this year, with four teams currently over .500.

The Cubs swept the Nationals in a four-game series last week, creating a blueprint for how to win against them. They just stayed away from Bryce Harper, walking him 13 times including four intentional passes.  They weren’t afraid of putting the reigning MVP on, because other than Daniel Murphy the Nats’ bats have been ice-cold this year. Five regulars have an OPS under .700. Those five have combined for 16 home runs on the year, while Harper and Murphy have 15.

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MLB has been called a copycat league and it’s shown true immediately, with Harper drawing another four walks in the first two games versus Detroit, including two more intentionally. One of those came with men on first and third and two outs in a tie ball game. The Tigers got Ryan Zimmerman to pop up, thus fueling the idea that you should never let Harper beat you.

The problem is, their pitching has been oh-so-good through the first 33 games, sitting at a 2.90 staff ERA, with former Cy Young winner Max Scherzer actually being their worst starter.  It’s a group that only trails those pesky Mets in fWAR, even ahead of the Jake Arrieta-led Cubs staff.  It’s a problem because of that offense. The stellar pitching has been wasted so far on a 24th-ranked offense, despite having the best player in the world playing like the best player in the world.

The worst offensive performer of the bunch? That’s right, shortstop Danny Espinosa has been a train-wreck at the plate, hitting .206/.320/.284 with only four extra-base hits.  While Espinosa is a great guy to have for his glove – able to play all four infield positions with relative success – he’s just not performing well enough to justify his place in the starting lineup. Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman are both experiencing similar seasons, contributing negative value offensively.

Luckily for the Nats, they have a top prospect patiently waiting in AAA.

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Trea Turner is off to a huge start for the Syracuse Chiefs, slashing .308/.375/.433 while playing a stable shortstop. He’s stolen 12 bases in just 31 games, and is walking at a better pace than he ever has before.  The Nats thought he was ready enough to call him up last August and though that taste didn’t go over perfectly, he actually performed better offensively than both Espinosa and Rendon are currently.

It’s those 45 days on the 25-man roster in 2015 though that are keeping Turner down, however.  You need 172 days to exhaust a year of service time, and with it get a year closer to arbitration. If the Nationals wait until June 1st to call up Turner, there will only be 122 days left in the season, giving him a possible total of 167 for the year (they need to give some leeway for possible rescheduling or play-in games). They’ll then be allowed to control Turner for another season, making him eligible for free agency after the 2022 season.

These service clock issues can be unbelievably frustrating for the fans, as we saw last year with the nonsense that surrounded Cubs phenom Kris Bryant and Phillies youngster Maikel Franco, both of whom were kept down just long enough to start the year so that they would be under control a further season. Both players would eventually file grievances against the league, stating that service time manipulation was against the current CBA. They are both unresolved currently.

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Turner’s isn’t exactly the same case as he has already made his MLB debut, but the Nationals are clearly keeping him down to delay his service time. It’s just that for a team that has a real shot at contending, another three weeks can make the difference in the division. How many more wins would they have if Turner had started the year with them? How many more would they win in May?

No one can answer these questions, but if the Nationals don’t realize that their offense isn’t getting it done, fans might be asking them in October while they watch the Mets represent the NL East once again.