CHICAGO -- Walking around Wrigley Field 90 minutes before the start of Game 3 of the NLCS, you'll find lots of familiar faces. Dignitaries, shiny TV folks in immaculate suits and dresses, various superfans. But no one flashed a bigger grin than Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi.
With good reason. Their random September losing streak notwithstanding, the Dodgers smashed all comers this season, winning an MLB-best 104 games. Thanks to a 6-1 victory against the Cubs on Tuesday night, they're now just one game away from making their first World Series in 29 years. Most strikingly, the Dodgers are winning in exactly the way that Zaidi hoped, planned, and predicted: with youth, data, and depth.
No player better exemplifies the difference between the 2017 Dodgers and the Dodgers clubs of recent vintage who've fallen short than Chris Taylor. In Game 3, Taylor homered and tripled, drove in two runs, and led L.A. to victory. But more than that, Taylor thrived by doing something he had done so well, all season long: He filled an enormous hole for the Dodgers, and did so in such convincing fashion, you could easily forget that hole ever existed in the first place.
The Mariners nabbed Taylor in the fifth round of the 2012 draft, out of the University of Virginia. At the time, he was seen as a better fielding prospect than a hitter. Then his bat started clicking. He hit .322/.417/.432 as an advanced player in the low-minors Northwest and Midwest leagues. Then in 2013, he batted an impressive .314/.409/.455 at high-A and Double-A, showing a patient approach at the plate (84 walks) and terrific base stealing skills (38 swipes in 43 tries). When Taylor followed by hitting .328/.397/.497 through three and a half months at Triple-A Tacoma, the M's summoned him to the Show, hoping to revive an offense that ranked second-to-last in the league in runs scored and break Seattle's long playoff drought.
Ron Howard Narrator: He did not. The M's wasted one of the greatest pitching seasons in franchise history, finishing a game shy of a postseason berth. Taylor showed some of the same promising on-base skills that defined his minor league career, batting .287 with a .347 OBP. But the one hitting skill he had never properly developed on the farm looked more acute against tougher big league competition, as Taylor slugged .346 in his 47-game debut stint in the majors.
Taylor's line-drive skills and ability to walk would clash with his total lack of power in 2015 and 2016 as well. He hit .300 with a .391 on-base percentage at Triple-A in '15, but with only four home runs in 86 games. Taylor's defenders argued that a broken wrist suffered in spring training held him back that year; at the very least, it nullified his shot at supplanting Brad Miller as Seattle's Opening Day starting shortstop. He had no such excuses in 2016. That year, he lost out on Seattle's utility infielder job to a future first ballot Hall of Famer named Luis Sardinas, then did in Tacoma what he'd always done: slapped a bunch of singles, with a few doubles and walks (.312 with a .387 OBP) while also showing Rey Sanchez levels of power (three long balls in 63 games). At a time when home runs were spiking across baseball, you had to wonder how a soon-to-be-26-year-old player with a Dead Ball Era approach to hitting might ever be much more than a decent bench jockey in the bigs.
The Dodgers did no such wondering. For a front office helmed by Zaidi and former Rays big boss Andrew Friedman, it was hard to look at Taylor and not see at least a smidge of Ben Zobrist there. Like Taylor, Zobrist was never regarded as an elite prospect, but he had a good idea what he was doing at the plate, he could play premium up-the-middle positions (several of them, if need be!) well, and could at the very least be a good depth player even if he never found a power stroke. So the Dodgers took a shot, trading erstwhile top pitching prospect Zach Lee to the M's for Taylor on June 19 of last year.
Taylor racked up a bunch more hits over 15 games at Triple-A Oklahoma City, only to bat .207 in 34 games with the Dodgers, managing only one home run between the two levels. So when spring training came around again this year, Taylor's grand ambition was merely to beat out Charlie Culberson and Rufus Twentyfifthmanovich for the right to see a couple of at-bats a week plus some ninth-inning sub duty at Dodger Stadium. Somehow he failed at that too.
Then Logan Forsythe hit the disabled list a few games into the season, prompting the Dodgers to recall Taylor, and slot him into the lineup right away ... in the number-nine spot. Taylor responded by banging two doubles. And then never saw the minors again. An escalating number of injuries, including a season-ending knee blowout for Opening Day left fielder Andrew Toles, gave Taylor the opportunity he needed to play regularly, at multiple positions.
Then something amazing happened. He started producing. Not just by hitting for average (though his .288 mark topped Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, and Andrew McCutchen) and not just by getting on base (though his .354 mark beat soon-to-be-Rookie of the Year teammate Cody Bellinger and Coors-inflated Mark Reynolds), but by hitting for power. Lots of power. Taylor slammed 60 extra-base hits in 514 at-bats, including a total of 21 home runs that looked comically huge considering he had never even reached double-digit home runs in a season ever before.
Explanations started streaming in as Taylor's power picked up. He was being even more patient at the plate by laying off bad pitches, allowing him to hammer hittable offerings in the zone. He was slashing line drives same as ever before, only in the year of the juiced ball, more of them were going out. And he was getting lucky, both by having a huge percentage of balls in play fall in for hits, and by having nearly half his home runs fly just barely far enough to leave the yard.
Add all that to Taylor's plus defense at second base and his elite glove in left, and yes, the Dodgers, at least for one year, had found themselves an immensely valuable, beat-you-in-infinite-ways superutility guy who found his way into the lineup every day. They had found themselves a new Zobrist.
So when 2016 Rookie of the Year and two-time Corey Seager got scratched from the NLCS roster, no one panicked. The Dodgers dug up Game 3 gold with a home run from seldom-used veteran Andre Ethier. And in Taylor, they had a fill-in ready at short who was better than almost any other team's first choice at that position.
The Dodgers don't get where they are without a modern-day Sandy Koufax at the head of their rotation. They don't get there without a harder-throwing version of Mariano Rivera at the back of their bullpen. They don't get there without the thumping rookie, without the more famous, hairier utilityman-to-star manning third base, without a deep rotation further bolstered by a high-profile deadline pickup, without one of the most drastically improved bullpens in the game. And they certainly don't get there without the 1-through-25 quality that Zaidi, Friedman, and friends have obsessed over since the first day they blew into town.
No player better exemplifies that seemingly bottomless well of organizational talent than Chris Taylor. If the Dodgers do bag the five more wins they need to win their first World Series since Gibby and Hershiser, they might want to consider giving Taylor a few dozen rings ... for the few dozen ways he can break his opponents' hearts.