How the Phillies landed Trea Turner: Inside their months-long quest that ended in a $300M deal

SAN DIEGO — John Middleton spent Sunday afternoon where he spends many Sunday afternoons in the fall. He sat with his wife, Leigh, alongside Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie in the executive suite at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. As the Eagles imposed their will upon the Tennessee Titans, those in the stands near Middleton and Lurie noticed something. There were a few loud fans who had a message. They conveyed it whenever there was a break in the action.

“Sign Trea Turner!” they yelled at Middleton again and again.

No one knew the Phillies were 24 hours from agreeing to an 11-year, $300 million deal with the star shortstop. Few knew, as Middleton watched the Eagles, that the Phillies and Turner’s camp had already exchanged offers over the weekend. A small circle within the Phillies organization had contemplated this moment for months — well before the team captured the attention of the entire baseball world.

Turner was the shortstop they wanted.

On Monday morning, one month to the day their unexpected postseason run ended with a Game 6 loss to the Houston Astros in the World Series, Dave Dombrowski contacted Middleton. The veteran baseball executive was here, at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, for the sport’s annual Winter Meetings. According to sources familiar with the negotiations, Dombrowski had received enough credible intel to know this: The Phillies were not the high bidder for Turner. The two sides had a gap to bridge and, even then, it would be short of the total guaranteed dollars another team had offered.

That team, multiple sources later revealed as the San Diego Padres, had a legitimate interest; they had met twice with Turner and were armed with an aggressive owner and general manager. San Diego’s engagement is what completed Turner’s agent, Jeff Berry of CAA Sports, to contact other clubs a few days before the Winter Meetings to ask for offers. Turner’s market had accelerated.

But the Phillies and Turner’s camp had been transparent through the entire process. Dombrowski, the club’s president of baseball operations, had flown to Florida with general manager Sam Fuld and manager Rob Thomson before Thanksgiving to meet with Turner and his wife, Kristen. Turner was impressed. He has a strong relationship with Kevin Long, the Phillies hitting coach. He had been teammates in Washington with Bryce Harperwho in the summer had started lobbying the Phillies’ highest-ranking officials to sign Turner.

Turner’s camp might not have ever said it out loud. But, indirectly, the Phillies believed they were always Turner’s first choice. Kristen is from Flemington, NJ The Turners now live in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and favored on an East Coast team. The Phillies had a limit to how much they’d offer, but there was enough momentum in the talks to know a match was possible — even if they were outbid.

The Phillies were reluctant to extend to $300 million until Monday morning. Dombrowski met Berry and presented a new offer. It was one of the largest in baseball history for a middle infielder. It would take Turner, 29, through his age-40 season. It was both preposterous and sensitive for a franchise that wandered in the desert for a decade only to this year taste a magical October that bled into a bittersweet November.

When the Phillies went to $300 million, they had a deal for the tantalizing shortstop. They had the man they wanted all along.

“That’s what it’s like to be a Philadelphia Phillie under John Middleton and Dave Dombrowski,” Harper told The Athletic soon after news of Turner’s agreement leaked. “They are committed to winning. So excited to welcome Trea and his family to such a great team, city, and fan base. Look for a special talent.”

Bryce Harper and Trea Turner, the Phillies’ $300 million men, in 2018 with Washington. (Nick Wass/Associated Press)

The Phillies have spent weeks meeting with players and agents and pitching them on what is happening in Philadelphia. One common theme has emerged in those chats.

“The energy, the noise, the enthusiasm,” Dombrowski said. “Everybody’s mentioned it. Not just one. There’s a very big excitement.”

“I think it’s one of the first things that gets covered,” Fuld said. “A number of guys have used the phrase, ‘You can feel it through the TV.’ Most of the guys we talked to were glued to watching the TV, through the playoffs.”

The Phillies wanted to capitalize on those feelings. Turner, according to multiple sources, left money on the table. The actual terms of the Padres’ final offer were unclear. California has a higher income tax rate, but San Diego’s offer was believed to be significant enough to offset that.

Now, the Phillies have signed the two longest free-agent contracts in MLB History. They consider that a design, not a flaw. Turner’s annual average value of $27.3 million is lofty, but it is manageable. The Phillies will commit less to their double-play tandem — Turner and Bryson Stott — in 2023 than they did to Jean Segura and Didi Gregorius in 2022. That, in the short term, is a win.

There are no illusions about the final years of Turner’s deal. As part of the various exercises in ranking the free-agent shortstops, Phillies officials debated how long each could stick at that premium position. They did not always achieve a consensus but, in the case of Turner, the team envisions he can remain a shortstop for somewhere between five and eight years. If it’s six, the Phillies will be pleased. The value of this contract is in the initial seasons, and that is why they pounced.

Turner’s contract, which sources said includes a full no-trade clause and no opt-outs, follows a similar pattern to the 13-year, $330 million deal Harper signed in 2019. The Phillies will worry about the 2030s when they get there. Is it an irresponsible organizational philosophy? maybe But Dombrowski is skilled in convincing billionaires how to spend their money. He is convinced that accumulating star players correlates with success.

“Everyone has different philosophies, but I would say I really believe that you win with star players,” Dombrowski said Monday. “Now you can’t win with star players alone, but you can build around star players. I’ve really always had that belief.”

This was a rare opportunity, Dombrowski admitted, while not formally commenting on Turner’s agreement because it is pending a physical that is scheduled for later this week. The Phillies, following this summer’s trade deadline, had one clear position needing moving forward: shortstop. And, by a stroke of luck, there were four above-average free agents at that position.

The Phillies spent months evaluating this free-agent shortstop class. Turner was their first choice. (Dale Zanine / USA Today)

The Phillies redirected one of their professional scouts during the season and assigned him an important task: Go watch all four impending free-agent shortstops. They had their analytics team do deep dives on all four players. The team’s evaluators met at Citizens Bank Park after the World Series and settled on a ranking.

Turner, according to sources, was the team’s first choice — even if signing him meant surrendering two draft picks (second and fifth round) and $1 million in international bonus pool money because he received a qualifying offer from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Carlos Correa, who was not attached to those penalties, was the second choice. There was not much that separated the two, although the Phillies harbored some concerns about Correa’s history of lower-back injuries.

The Phillies had Xander Bogaerts as their third choice and Dansby Swanson fourth. But there was a large gap, in the Phillies’ evaluation, between the first two shortstops and the latter two. The team met with all four — Turner first, Swanson last week in Georgia, and Correa and Bogaerts this past weekend in California. The Phillies decided their original rankings were accurate after the in-person interviews.

Long and Harper had made pitches to the front office in August about Turner—who he was as a player, a teammate, and a person. Kyle Schwarber, also a former teammate of Turner’s, also shared feedback. The Phillies had enough input from people they trusted to know how Turner would fit in the clubhouse.

This helped formulate the Phillies’ background work on Turner. When Dombrowski, Fuld and Thomson met with the family in Florida last month, they delivered a care package that included jerseys for Kristen and Beckham, their 21-month-old son. The Phillies contingent described the atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park during the recent postseason run. Turner, who won a World Series with the Washington Nationals, is not a stranger to high-stakes baseball. The Phillies officials tried to explain how this was a feeling unlike anything else.

It was worth chasing.

The Phillies celebrate after defeating the San Diego Padres in the NLCS. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

That has extended to Phillies ownership, which will field the highest payroll in franchise history next season. The Phillies might carry a roster worth $250 million in AAV. There are more penalties incurred when a team exceeds $253 million in payroll, and the Phillies might not take it that far. Then again, they had never paid luxury tax until last season and now they have a $300 million shortstop on top of that.

The Phillies aren’t done. They are pursuing a starter for the middle of the rotation — not Carlos Rodón or even Chris Bassitt or Nate Eovaldi because all of them are attached to qualifying offers. There are decent alternatives to augment the rotation. Then, the Phillies will pluck a setup man or a few middle relievers from a large pool of available free-agent bullpen arms.

The heaviest lifting is done. Under Dombrowski, the Phillies have prioritized improvements up the middle. They signed JT Realmuto in 2021 to the most lucrative deal ever for a catcher. They dealt their best hitting prospect for a young center fielder, Brandon Marsh, at this year’s trade deadline. They can shift Stott, a first-round draft pick from the previous regime, to second base, where he profiles better as a defender.

But Turner, as exciting a player as there is in baseball, might be the most compelling addition yet. The Phillies weren’t going to be beat.

“You really want to know the players inside and out,” Dombrowski said. “You want to make sure the person fits in with our ball club, our market. Hopefully, when you’re making these types of decisions you don’t leave any stone unturned.”

The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Dennis Lin contributed to this report.

(Top photo: Michael Owens / Getty Images)

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