From the very beginning, Justin Turner’s unceremonious non-tender in 2013 has been muddied by innuendo. The reasons behind the Mets’ decision to give up on a player before he transformed himself into one of baseball’s best have never been clear.
It could have been simply a baseball decision. After all, Turner was an underused utilityman. But reports quickly surfaced about the front office’s perception of a lack of hustle, which were stoked when general manager Sandy Alderson said at the time, “Don’t assume every non-tender is a function of money.”
Just last week, another possible reason emerged, one that had not been disclosed. Turner said he was encouraged to spend part of his winter in Michigan working out with Mike Barwis, then the Mets’ new strength and conditioning consultant.
Turner declined, and about a week later, he was cut loose.
Was this the final straw? Alderson denies it. Turner doesn’t know for sure. “I still don’t know why,” Turner said recently.
Four years later, the reasons for that fateful decision hardly matter, only the consequences. When the Dodgers began the World Series on Tuesday night, it was partly because Turner, 32, has emerged as an MVP-caliber third baseman, the result of a shrewd decision to pick him up after the Mets dumped him.
“I don’t know that I have strong enough adjectives for J.T.,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “He is a tremendous leader, ultimate team player, great teammate.”
One that got away
The Mets are coming off a 92-loss season, an injury-riddled campaign in which Barwis’ methods came into question. Alderson must scour the market for an impact bat, with openings at second and third. He’ll also need to bring in steady veteran voices for a clubhouse stripped of them in a midseason purge. In essence, the Mets are in need of a player they once had in Turner.
“He’s that model of consistency,” Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said. “The last two or three years he’s been one of the best hitters in the league and one of the best players. The clubhouse presence is huge for us.”
The Mets didn’t know that in 2013. Perhaps they couldn’t have known it. Turner had been drafted by the Reds, traded to the Orioles, then waived. He wound up with the Mets, starting in the minors before carving a niche on the bench in the big leagues. In 301 games with the Mets from 2010-2013, Turner hit .265 with eight homers in a part-time role.
But Turner had a plan. He intended to spend the winter of 2013 revamping his swing with Doug Latta, a private hitting instructor in his native Southern California. Turner had committed to going when the Mets suggested the workouts with Barwis. “They wanted me to pay for workouts,” Turner said. “I wanted to hit with my guy.”
Those lessons — in which Turner became an early adopter of hitting the ball in the air with more power — would begin a massive transformation. Turner was still under team control in 2013, and it would have cost the Mets a projected $800,000 to keep him. He was non-tendered, anyway.
Alderson denied that Turner’s decision to hit in California rather than sweat it out in Michigan played into his departure. “First I’ve heard that explanation,” he said. “There was never a Turner issue with Barwis.”
With David Wright at third and Daniel Murphy at second, Alderson said, “Justin simply didn’t have a position with us.”
Transformed into standout
With the Dodgers, Turner has become a key cog in a 104-win juggernaut. This year he earned All-Star honors and hit .322 with 21 homers and 71 RBIs. He entered Tuesday night hitting .387 in October with three homers, including a Kirk Gibsonesque walk-off in Game 2 of the NLCS and followed that with a 2-run go-ahead home run in the sixth inning of Game 1 of the World Series.
“There’s nobody that anyone would want up in that situation aside from J.T.,” Friedman said. “Then you throw in Gold Glove-caliber defense at third base and he’s a tremendous player who is a huge part of what we do both on and off the field.”
From afar, Alderson can appreciate what Turner has become.
“Even L.A. didn’t offer him a major-league contract,” Alderson said. “But he has done exceedingly well and I am happy for him. Despite what you may think, we don’t sit around hoping all former Mets do poorly when they move on. There are good guys and bad guys. He was a good guy.”
Justin Turner has some gaudy numbers in 26 postseason games (Tuesday night not included):