Yasiel Puig’s first appearance in the majors had been fabled for some time. Matt Kemp, the young Dodgers star the team had just signed to an eight-year deal, was hurt for the third time in 14 months, and doubts of his superstardom were already creeping in. “Derek Jeter appeared on the disabled list twice during his 10-year contract with the Yankees,” Bill Shaikin noted in the L.A. Times, for some reason.
Where, it was being asked, would the Dodgers be expected to find their power with Kemp trying to swing through a shoulder injury and maintaining the lowest slugging percentage (.335) in the league among starting outfielders? What silhouette would appear on the horizon, a bat slung over his shoulder, and take the Dodgers to the Promised Land?
“He is not in the major leagues,” Shaikin wrote. “His name is Yasiel Puig.”
Seven years later, his name is still Yasiel Puig, and he is still a ball player, only now, he is available to play for your team. His biblical foretelling led to an explosive debut and a thrilling first two years of his major league career. Puig has gone through a lot since then; his uniform has changed multiple times and his numbers have fallen away so that only his reputation, the parts earned and unearned, has remained. Now, at age 29 and dragging 20.0 career WAR behind him over seven seasons, he is filling an odd little niche on the 2020 free agent market: He is the dream acquisition of last place teams. To invent a word on the spot, we might say that he can increase the “fan-ability” of three teams that could really use it in 2020.
Early on, it’s fair to say that Puig made himself a phenomenon. The echoes of that immediate impact are still reverberating, as despite his drop-off, he is still a name people both recognize and see value in. Puig was worth 9.8 WAR over two seasons, a collective 6.4 WAR above average. He brought power, slugging .502 with a .197 ISO and hitting fly balls 32.4% of the time, 15.2% of which went over the fence, and posted a 153 wRC+. Since then, his SLG has dropped (.462), his ISO has held steady (.199), he’s hit way more fly balls (37.4%) and slightly more of them have been home runs than before (16.0%), all while being good for a 110 wRC+. One thing that’s been true his whole career is that he’s a steady pull hitter, sending the ball to left about 40% of the time since the beginning. And FanGraphs says you could probably grab him for around $39 million over three years!
He’s also got that reputation that, when viewed negatively – and even unfairly – is considered selfish or brash, and when considered positively, is viewed as fun and joyous. Last season, he was traded from the Reds to the Indians during a game, but was too busy defending a teammate in a bench-clearing, suspension-generating brawl to find out. Puig is unafraid not only be a full-on ball player, but a full-on person, every inning of every game.
According to the giant machines that crank out our projections of the future, the Tigers, Marlins, and Giants are all destined for the cellar in 2020. They could surprise people! Anything can happen! But their success beyond last place would indeed be a surprise. They are at varying points in the last-place team status, but Puig is a viable candidate for any of them.
MLB Trade Rumors said Puig could fit with the Tigers, and some of their fans nodded in agreement. Giants fans are grappling with the idea that a once hated rival could feasibly become their champion. Marlins fans want him, and it kind of seems as if he wants them, too. Not that his appeal is limited to cellar dwellers, but about Puig makes him so compelling to fans of baseball’s less fortunate teams?
Well for starters, last place teams are bad, and bad teams are rarely as fun as we hope. Puig gives people a beacon of potential skill and joy in times of intense, crapulent boredom. But also, these teams aren’t exactly bursting at the seams with outfield talent, and Puig, at 29, is neither a used-up veteran nor an unaffordable slugger in his prime.
Current Outfield: Corey Dickerson, Lewis Brinson, Brian Anderson
The talk around Brinson is still focused on his “raw tools,” as he has yet to channel them into effective on-field skills, as evidenced by his second-lowest wRC+ in all of baseball last year at 56. Anderson, conversely, was one of Miami’s sole bright spots in 2019, before his season ended after a fastball broke his left hand. Steamer has him dropping off, from 3.1 to 2.3 WAR and 114 to 105 wRC+. Dickerson is the Marlins’ newest and highest profile addition, available after having played 34 games for the Phillies during which he had the third highest wRC+ on the team (121) behind only Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto. Puig slots here both skill-wise and fan-wise, thanks to fans’ desire to see this team continue adding, his seeming personal interest in being there, and his established relationship with manager Don Mattingly.
Current Outfield: Alex Dickerson, Mike Yastrzemski, Steven Duggar
The Giants have been connected to both Marcell Ozuna and Nicholas Castellanos this winter, despite the season of research and development in front of them. Ozuna has since signed with the Braves and if desperation drops Castellanos’ price tag at all, the Giants may appear before him. But if not, Puig fits their bill, as their current crop features one prospect they want to see flourish (Yastrzemski), but is part of an outfield that collectively produced a total of 2.2 WAR in 248 games last season. There’s room for growth in Oracle’s spacious outfield. And you can’t tell me fans wouldn’t get over Puig’s Dodgers days in a hurry as he puts his talent and verve on display during what could potentially be a 100-loss season. He’ll be affordable and powerful, and he’ll get people to look at the Giants. That’ll be a big ask in 2020.
Current Outfield:Christin Stewart, JaCoby Jones, Victor Reyes
Detroit isn’t working with an outfield of great depth, skill, or existence, and nobody has made improving it on the major league level a priority in two years. Adding a free agent like Puig wouldn’t put an obstacle in the path of a hotly anticipated prospect, and Puig exists in a financial tier that the Tigers could actually meet, even as they focus on cutting payroll. With his suspect defense and diminished offense, Puig is the best free agent teams looking to spend low as they begin or continue rebuilding can probably get. And in each of these cases, the universal notion of buying low on a player with a high ceiling in order to trade him later in the season for prospects exists here in a big way.
Puig is not the player he was early in his career. But he’s still got numbers that would be useful to most teams, and if any of those teams were projected to finish in, say, dead last, then they would look at Puig and think: This is a guy we could put on a poster, or use to sell tickets and jerseys, or give away as a bobblehead. Unless they’re the Tigers.
There is a “possibility” the Tigers sign an outfielder, Avila said. Yasiel Puig “isn’t a priority,” Avila said.
— anthony fenech (@anthonyfenech) January 23, 2020
Being a fan of a team embarking on what has been widely accepted to be a losing season long before the first pitch is thrown is exhausting. Not only because of the games being played and lost, but also because of the way coverage tends to ignore them, making it feel like the team you follow is worse than bad — it’s entirely irrelevant to the sport. But there is a free agent that has the ability to mesmerize and polarize, and give fans desperate for something watchable the gift of, at the very least, momentary entertainment.
His name is Yasiel Puig.
Justin is a contributor to FanGraphs and a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.