Turner brings ‘playoff success and clutchness’ to Blue Jays team in need of both

Justin Turner details his decision making process in signing with the Blue Jays and discusses what stands out about his new team.

TORONTO – Ross Stripling’s favourite baseball memory of Justin Turner is hands down the veteran slugger’s walk-off, three-run homer for the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 2 of the 2017 National League Championship Series. There were two on and two out when he turned on a John Lackey fastball that ran over the plate, and suddenly it’s “just giant beard and long hair celebrating around the bases,” Stripling recalls via text.

“That and just his overall playoff success and clutchness,” adds the former Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays right-hander, who was just traded by San Francisco to Oakland. “He’s just a great locker-room guy. Leader through and through. Gives the same time and attention to the 26th man as he does the superstars, as he does the beat writers and the coaches.”

The totality of the package made Turner especially appealing to the Blue Jays, who on Wednesday signed the 39-year-old to a $13-million, one-year deal that includes up to $1.5 million in performance bonuses.

Speaking to media via Zoom on Friday, Turner said he put the Blue Jays high up on his list of possible destinations early in free agency and they were among the first teams to connect with him. He’d been impressed by the club’s pitching staff and lineup last year when he was with the Boston Red Sox and a December Zoom chat with GM Ross Atkins and manager John Schneider convinced him about the fit.

From there, a deal took longer than expected amid the off-season’s strangely slow free-agent market, finally coming together this week. Renowned around the sport for his presence, poise amid pressure and leadership, Turner said, “I’m looking forward to getting over there and hopefully having an impact on some of their younger guys and maybe helping them take the next step.”

[brightcove videoID=6346077066112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Turner will be deliberate in how he integrates into his new team, as he was a year ago when he joined the Red Sox. He doesn’t buy into the notion that older players can simply walk into a clubhouse and demand respect – “I don’t think that flies anymore,” he said – instead putting in work to build genuine relationships.

“I played with the Dodgers for a long, long time. I won a World Series with them. I made a couple of all-star teams with them. The stuff on the back of the card is there, obviously, but that doesn’t mean when you walk in the room people just respect you because you did some cool things in the past,” said Turner. “I had that mentality last year, going into Boston and it was probably the best way to go about it for me because it made those relationships and those conversations a little bit more real and less on the surface. … It’s a two-way street. I want to get to know these guys and I want to earn their respect, just as I’m sure they want to earn my respect.”

Neither of those should be an issue as Turner – who barring an unexpected opportunity will be the Blue Jays’ last major add of the winter – brings lots of what the club needs to the mix.

A candidate to bat fourth behind Vladimir Guerrero Jr., he may help most as a proven run-producer. Last year he collected a career-high 96 RBIs when he batted .338 with runners in scoring position, a number that stands at .312 for his career.

[brightcove videoID=6345879084112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Driving in runs was an issue throughout 2023 for the Blue Jays, who collectively hit .260 in those situations, with the four-spot in the lineup batting a meagre .247/.331/.414 with 19 homers and 71 RBIs.

As Stripling mentioned, Turner also brings a special post-season resume to the table, with a .270/.370/.460 batting line over 368 plate appearances in 86 games. His memorable home run against the Cubs is a product of an approach the Blue Jays, who are 0-6 during playoff appearances in 2020, 2022 and 2023, can certainly benefit from.

“The best way to go about the playoff atmosphere is to try to hone in and literally play it one pitch at a time, one at-bat at a time. You don’t know how many you’re going to get in that post-season so, letting your first at-bat, second at-bat or third at-bat dictate or affect what you do in those seventh, eighth or ninth-inning at-bats isn’t a recipe for success,” said Turner. “The same goes for the pitching staff. I’ve seen guys cruising through games and then all of a sudden fifth inning, sixth inning, they hit the bump in the road and you’re like, what happened? You just can’t let your foot off the gas pedal and you’ve got to take every single inning like it’s the ninth inning and you’re up a run. That’s the recipe that I think works the best in the playoffs. It’s obviously harder to do. It takes a lot of mental capacity to do that at the end of the game because you’re absolutely exhausted. And you should be because it’s a playoff game and those are the ones that mean the most.”

The main question surrounding Turner – who said he’s happy to play as much third, first or even second base as Schneider wants although he was signed to primarily serve as DH – is tied to his age, as he turns 40 in November.

[brightcove videoID=6346076773112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

At some point he’ll inevitably decline – Nelson Cruz, for example, was ageless until at 41 he wasn’t – but Turner was on track for an even bigger season than the one he had last year until he jammed his right heel at first base July 31. He initially missed three games, and returned to play twice before sitting out four more contests until what was then diagnosed as a bone bruise settled down.

The discomfort lingered for the rest of the season and caught up with him in the final month, when he batted .221/.286/.295.

[brightcove videoID=6346074214112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

“It was annoying, really, but it didn’t hurt me running, stopping was the hard part,” Turner said of the injury’s impact. “I stayed in Boston for a couple months when the season ended, I was going into the training room getting work done. Ended up getting an MRI and they found out it wasn’t even a bone bruise. It was like a little almost dead area in a fat pad where they said blood wasn’t getting to it. Treated it for a couple months, did some modalities to try to stimulate blood flow down there and it’s been feeling great. I ran a couple 5Ks this month, so, it’s not really affecting me.”

Presuming that holds, Turner will instead positively affect the Blue Jays, who are banking on his bat, first and foremost, but also on everything else he brings to the table.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.