SAN DIEGO -- It was Jan. 25, two weeks before the Dodgers’ pitchers and catchers were due to report for spring training, and Justin Turner was growing a bit nervous.
He had been non-tendered by the New York Mets two months earlier, and the offers hadn’t exactly flooded his agent’s cell phone. Turner had two offers for minor league deals, one with the Boston Red Sox and one with the Minnesota Twins, but he had his heart set on playing for the Dodgers. Not only were they his hometown team -- he grew up in Long Beach and has lived in North Hollywood the past two years -- but there appeared to be a golden opportunity at Dodger Stadium.
National League teams use bench players far more frequently than AL teams, and Turner knew that the Dodgers had lost all their reserve infielders, with Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto signing elsewhere and Jerry Hairston Jr. and Michael Young retiring.
That’s when Turner ran into Dodgers bench coach Tim Wallach at the Cal State Fullerton alumni game. Turner would soon be a Dodger, albeit a Dodger with no guarantees. The Dodgers had been negotiating to re-sign Young, but turned their attention to Turner when Young informed them he was calling it a career.
Wallach called manager Don Mattingly and Mattingly called general manager Ned Colletti.
“He asked me what was going on, like, ‘Why haven’t you signed with the Dodgers yet?’ “ Turner said. “I was like, ‘I haven’t heard anything yet,’ and then, some-odd days later, I get a phone call and the next thing I know, I’m a Dodger.”
As well as that worked out for Turner, it has worked out better for the Dodgers in the intervening months. Turner, who went into camp fighting for a roster spot, has, by one important measure, been the Dodgers’ second-most important position player this season. He has filled in at four positions while batting .321 overall and .420 with runners in scoring position. According to Baseball-Reference’s version of wins above replacement (WAR), Turner has been the Dodgers’ second-most valuable position player behind Yasiel Puig.
“I don’t even know how you calculate [WAR] or what, exactly, it means,” Turner said. “I know sabermetrics is a big part of it nowadays and I know that’s a big sabermetric number, but I don’t really pay attention to it. Any time you have success, it’s gratifying, especially when you know how difficult the game is.”
It goes beyond those numbers, though. For the second time this season, Turner has filled in for one of the Dodgers’ most unsung players, Juan Uribe, and made his absence virtually invisible.
“Shoot, to be honest with you, I’m not sure where we’d be if he hadn’t been here,” Wallach said.
If anything, the Dodgers feel like Turner has been more valuable to them than his WAR suggests. He has seen 4.17 pitches per plate appearance, putting him just behind catcher A.J. Ellis, one of the game’s most patient hitters, in that category. It’s Turner’s ability to grind out at-bats that first made him such a good fit for the Dodgers in Wallach’s mind.
“Every time we saw him, he’d always take a good at-bat. It didn’t mean he always got a hit, but it was never an easy at-bat for the pitcher,” Wallach said. “To me, there’s a lot of good in that. I think it always takes a little out of what they’re trying to do, gets you a little closer to that hit you’re going to need.
“When we look at our pitchers, especially our starters, you look at how many tough innings they have. If they have two or three tough innings early in the game, usually you’re going to be careful with how long you’re going to let them go. So, tough at-bats are important.”
Last weekend was one to savor for Turner. The Mets were in town and, each time he came up, the scoreboard indicated he was hitting .318 for one of the league’s best teams. The Mets’ front office, no doubt, took note. After the Mets non-tendered Turner, they leaked information to ESPNNewYork’s Adam Rubin that they had grown tired of seeing Turner not run hard to first base, a charge Turner finds ridiculous.
“It felt good, obviously. That’s one of the last reasons it feels good for me, but obviously when the team that lets you go comes in, you always have that little extra hunger or drive to want to do better and to want to prove them wrong,” Turner said.
When Uribe comes back from his hamstring injury, which could be a matter of a week or so, Turner will return to his previous role: filling in for Uribe, Ramirez, Gordon and Gonzalez. The Dodgers will upgrade the left side of their infield a bit since Uribe is one of the league’s best third baseman, but they will be taking a small step back offensively. In a way, it’s the reverse of what they’re going through transitioning Ramirez back to everyday shortstop.
“Is he Juan Uribe? Probably not, but he’s done a very good job wherever we put him,” Wallach said. “He’s done a good job at all of them and those guys are invaluable.”
Of all the Dodgers people figured to be calling “invaluable,” back in February, Turner might not have cracked the Top 25.