Dodgers see Justin Turner evolve from hitter to leader
CHICAGO — When the Dodgers signed Justin Turner to a minor-league contract in February 2014, they didn’t know what they had.
But that’s not surprising because, truthfully, Turner probably didn’t either. Now, three years later, Turner has become one of the best third baseman in the National League, making himself over as a hitter through hard work and a willingness to change.
But he also has emerged as a key leader on a team with championship aspirations — “the new heart and soul of this team,” as former Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said last August — and someone who GM Farhan Zaidi says has been “right in the center” of the culture shift in the Dodgers clubhouse that the front office has made a priority over the past two years.
“Andrew (Friedman), up in his office, has our opening day lineup in 2015 and it has Juan Uribe playing third base,” Zaidi says with a chuckle of awareness of how misguided that seems now. “It is amazing how far JT came just in that one season, when we viewed him as a great, versatile extra infielder we’d just find a way to get 300 at-bats to playing so well we basically had to move Uribe, who was such a popular player but who Justin had clearly passed production-wise. We had to create the playing time for him.”
The Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles and New York Mets never felt they had to create playing time for Turner. Nor did they place enough value on his voice in the clubhouse to prevent them from trading (the Reds), waiving (the Orioles) or non-tendering him (the Mets).
The Long Beach native, who starred at Mayfair High and Cal State Fullerton, had to become a success before he could become the heart and soul of anything.
“I think you can be a leader if you’re a bench player who’s accomplished a lot in the game,” Zaidi said. “So if you’re sort of at the back end of your career and have had accomplishments players respected, been to places that other places have tried to get to — then maybe. But I think it’s a fair point that the real credibility of leadership comes from, you know, having done it.
“I think people respect that he has had to work to make himself the player he is and doesn’t take it for granted.”
Turner’s career arc didn’t include being an everyday player until he was nearly 30 or the security of a big multi-year contract until this past winter. That makes him “more relatable to more guys on a team,” says one of those teammates.
“Because I think a lot of guys that are in a major-league clubhouse have journeyed here,” Scott Van Slyke says. “They haven’t just showed up that first day and had a job. Guys put in their time. There aren’t a whole lot of Corey Seagers around.
“I think he (Turner) has probably always been a leader. I think leaders are born for the most part. … I think he just waited to make his words and thoughts known. Because your first few years, you’re just tippy-toeing and trying to figure everything out. There’s kind of like an unwritten rule that once you get five years you can start announcing your thoughts. Keep it to yourself until you get there.”
Success has brought confidence and a certain freedom that might have been lacking earlier in his career, Turner agrees.
“I think I’m at a point where I don’t care if someone disagrees with me or if someone says that’s not right or someone has a different opinion,” he says. “I’ll go up and talk to a guy and if they blow me off or they don’t like it or whatever — hey, it works for me. I’m not worried. Whereas four, five years ago if I’d said that and someone said, ‘No, you’re wrong,’ I probably would have been like, ‘Oh, crap. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe what I’m doing isn’t right.’
“But I’m not at that point anymore.”
Seager calls Turner’s influence in the Dodgers’ clubhouse “huge” and credits him for being able to walk a “really fine line” exerting it at the right time and in the right way.
“I think it’s just, I don’t know, I’m a very inclusive guy,” Turner says. “I want everyone to feel involved, to be involved, to feel comfortable. I know what it was like when I was coming up and being uncomfortable and trying to make an impression and trying to stay (in the big leagues) and getting out of character because it was something I wanted so bad. I was trying to be someone I wasn’t.”
In his final year with the Mets, Turner began to make significant changes to his approach at the plate, adding a leg kick and focusing on driving the ball in the air. Those changes paid off and “some of his own improvement and evolving as a player makes him a good teacher as well,” Zaidi says. Turner’s influence was also acknowledged by Rob Segedin and Chris Taylor this spring. Both are having success with changes inspired by Turner.
And maybe Turner deserves some credit for Yasiel Puig’s early power surge this season. The origins of the bet are murky – both say it was the other’s idea — and it’s unclear whether any pushups were actually done. But during spring training, Puig put Turner in charge of making him do pushups any time he hit the ball on the ground in batting practice.
“He’s always talking to me in the cage, pushing me to be better,” Puig says. “He’s always the one who talks in meetings and helps out his teammates.
“He’s a big leader on this team.”
Drafted: 7th round by the Cincinnati Reds in 2006
Traded: By the Reds (with 3B Brandon Waring and OF Ryan Freel) to the Baltimore Orioles for C Ramon Hernandez and cash considerations in 2008.
Waived: By the Orioles and claimed by the New York Mets in 2010.
Non-tendered: By the Mets in 2013 (making him a free agent).
Parts of five seasons with Orioles/Mets: .260/.323/.360, 8 HR, 89 RBI in 318 games
In his fourth season with Dodgers: .298/.365/.493, 50 HR, 196 RBI in 394 games (through Monday)
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