2018 Los Angeles Dodgers: One more step to go

Junior Gilliam

Jim Gilliam, known as Junior, would be in vogue today for his skills: he switch-hit, he could play infield or outfield, he could run and he had great patience. He played on four Dodgers World Series winners and seven pennant winners in 14 seasons, and contributed to all. Gilliam was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1953, moving Jackie Robinson off second base to third base and left field (third baseman Billy Cox complained more than Robinson). Gilliam batted .278, walked 100 times, stole 21 bases, led the NL in triples and homered twice in the World Series, which the Dodgers lost in six to the Yankees. By 1956 it always seemed someone was going to do to Gilliam what he did to Robinson, but never did. From Gilliam’s bio at sabr.org: “So, starting in 1956, a regular story would attend every Dodger spring training through the rest of Gillam’s active career. He would go into March a possible odd-man-out, battling a phenom who was going to take his job. In 1956, it was Charlie Neal. Neal was going to replace Gilliam at second base, but Neal wasn’t as polished with the glove, and the promise of his bat did not pan out. Gilliam’s calm, workmanlike approach served him well; every year he survived, sometimes moving to a new position, and every year, played as much as anyone.” Gilliam was the Dodgers second baseman when they won the World Series for the first time in 1955 (.249/341/355) and their third baseman in 1959 when they won the Series for the first time in L.A. (.282/387/345, NL-leading 96 walks vs. 25 strikeouts and 23 steals). When they won it again in 1963, he was sixth in the MVP vote, batting .282, walking 60 times and stealing 19 bases. After he batted .228 at age 35 in 1964, the Dodgers made him their first-base coach in 1965. But two months into the season, with John Kennedy on his way to a .171 average and Dick Tracewski to a not-much-better .215, the Dodgers asked Gilliam to play again. GM Buzzie Bavasi, from sabr.org: “We talked over several possibilities… Finally, I said, ‘Let’s reactivate Old Slowfoot.’ Gilliam, attending the meeting as a coach, looked at me out of the corner of his eye. We were playing the Cardinals that night. He said, ‘You picked a fine day to bring me back. We’re going against (Bob) Gibson tonight. Wait until tomorrow.’” Gilliam returned, batted .280 with a .374 on-base percentage and even finished 30th in the MVP voting. The Dodgers won the World Series in seven games over the Twins, Gilliam taking an extra-base hit away from AL MVP Zoilo Versalles with two on and one out in the fifth inning of Game 7. Sandy Koufax did the rest, winning, 2-0. The next year Gilliam was a player-coach but batted just .211 and retired after the Orioles swept the Dodgers in the Series. Gilliam died in 1978 at age 49 without ever managing in the majors, staying on as coach when Tommy Lasorda succeeded manager Walter Alston instead of Gilliam. Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jim Murray’s famous tribute to Gilliam: “I guess my all-time favorite athlete was Jim Gilliam. He always thought he was lucky to be a Dodger. I thought it was the other way around.” Career numbers: .265 average, .360 on-base percentage, .715 OPS, 1,889 hits, 1,163 runs, 203 steals, 111 caught stealings, 1,036 walks, 416 strikeouts, 23 walks and nine strikeouts in the World Series, 93 OPS+, two-time All-Star, four times receiving MVP votes, including fifth in 1956 and sixth in 1963, 40.7 WAR (6.1 in 1956, 5.2 in 1963).

Next man up: Walker Buehler debuted in the majors after just 93.2 minor-league innings; Mitchell White has already pitched 95.2 but may not throw too many more. White was a 2016 second-round draft pick who, like Buehler, has already had Tommy John surgery. He threw just 77.2 innings across three levels last year, fanning 88 and compiling a 2.93 ERA. The Dodgers’ rotation is deep, but like Buehler last year, White is available if they need him.

What he said:  Justin Turner on the Dodgers’ seven-game World Series loss: “Everybody dealt with it over the winter in his own way.” What he meant: “We won’t have Yu Darvish to kick around this year.”

Three reasons it will be a good year: 1. The Dodgers were the best team in the NL last year and among the best in MLB: they won 104 games, outscored opponents by 190 runs, and won seven of their eight first postseason games. They’re in a similar place to where the Royals were after losing the World Series in 7 in 2014, and their team, its business unfinished, returns virtually intact. 2. Walker Buehler and Alex Verdugo. The Dodgers don’t have to spend much or deal much to upgrade. They have two of MLB’s best prospects ready when they need them. Buehler — cue up the Ferris jokes — pitched 9.1 innings last year to get acclimated; he fanned 125 in 88.2 minor-league innings. He’s 23. Verdugo, a centerfielder, batted 25 times after slashing .314/389/436 in AAA and is why the Dodgers decided Willie Calhoun was expendable. He’s 21. 3. Justin Turner might be the best third baseman in MLB, and is there anyone who better demonstrates the vagaries of the sport? The Reds traded him in a package for catcher Ramon Hernandez, who hasn’t played in a MLB game since 2013. The Orioles waived him. The Mets allowed him to leave as a free agent. The Dodgers signed him for a workingman’s million dollars, and Turner has hit .303/378/502 in four Dodgers seasons. He’s still only 32, and his .932 OPS last year was the best at his position. Is there another pro sport in which someone with that resume would be as good as Turner?

Three reasons it won’t: 1. It’s not easy to repeat. Since 2002 only three teams have played in consecutive World Series (Phillies 2008-09; Rangers 2010-11; Royals 2014-15), and only the Royals have been able to win one after losing the year before. The Indians, 2016 Series runner-up, won 102 games and had an MLB-best run differential of +254 last season; they couldn’t even get back to the ALCS. Before the Royals, the last Series loser to return to the Series and win it the next year was Oakland in 1989, after losing to the Dodgers in five games in 1988. And those A’s weren’t supposed to lose the first time. 2. Matt Kemp is back, and any Dodger fan knows no good can come of that. The Dodgers reacquired Kemp to balance their checkbook — they foisted Adrian Gonzalez on the Braves, who was quickly released. Getting rid of Kemp isn’t so easy because he’s still owed $43.5 million, most of which the Dodgers are responsible for (the Padres owe Kemp $5 million due to A.J. Preller’s misguided attempt to make that team a contender in 2015. The 2015 Padres only finished 14 games under .500 and 18 games out of first). The Dodgers didn’t invite Kemp to their fan gathering, which was a telling welcome. The team said it was to spare Kemp’s feeling from the difficult questions he’d get from fans; the level of accountability at Fan Fests is somewhat below that asked of Marco Rubio at this week’s Town Hall. Kemp told reporters this spring, “I’ve got a lot left in me,” and he may be right, if you believe a weight scale. 3. Any chance Chris Taylor goes back to being … Chris Taylor? He batted .288, hit 21 homers, had an .850 OPS and played five positions. In 291 MLB at-bats before 2017, Taylor had hit one homer and batted .234. The Dodgers acquired Taylor from the Mariners for pitcher Zach Lee, who was waived after 2016. It was the kind of trade for trade’s sake that makes Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto the modern-day “Trader” Frank Lane, who once dealt a manager but never won a pennant, and Dipoto’s trading partner a World Series team.

Team song: Steely Dan: Show Biz Kids

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