Pitchers and catchers have begun reporting to camps, and all but a small handful of name-brand free agents have found home. From among our Top 50 Free Agents list, one in particular stands out for multiple reasons: Yasiel Puig. The enigmatic 29-year-old right fielder’s current plight and potential matches are worth a closer look.
Signed to a seven-year, $42 million contract after defecting from Cuba in 2012, Puig made an instant impact upon debuting with the Dodgers on June 3, 2013, and was just about the game’s most arresting — and polarizing — presence for his first two seasons in the majors. What’s an article about Puig without some video? Let’s remember some highlights.
Eventually, however, the obvious flaws in his game — holes in his swing, and mental mistakes in the field and on the basepaths, began to outweigh his considerable gifts, and he fell out of favor in Los Angeles. Traded to the Reds in December 2018, he’s coming off a decidedly unremarkable season spent with them and the Indians, to whom he was traded on July 30. He hit .267/.327/.458 for a 101 wRC+ and 1.2 WAR; the last two metrics represent his worst showings since 2016, the year he played himself into a late-season Triple-A assignment after the Dodgers tried to trade him at the July 31 deadline while adding Josh Reddick as a potential upgrade. He hit a lopsided .252/.302/.475 (95 wRC+) in his 100-game Cincinnati stopover last year, and while he did launch 22 homers for the Reds, the most memorable things about his tenure were his blonde mohawk and a central role in two very colorful brawls with the Pirates, the second of which occurred just minutes after he had reportedly been traded to Cleveland as part of a three-way deal.
Benches clear in Pittsburgh during Reds – Pirates game. pic.twitter.com/Dm6SSnvUNP
— MLB (@MLB) April 7, 2019
The Reds' and Pirates' benches have cleared. pic.twitter.com/za8hYc0zuX
— FOX Sports Cincinnati (@FOXSportsCincy) July 31, 2019
Puig fared better after moving across the state of Ohio, batting .297/.377/.423 (112 wRC+) with the Indians over his final 49 games, though he homered just twice.
On the strength of his age, track record, projection, and other assorted factors, Puig placed 18th on our free agent list; he’s now the higher-ranked of the two players from among that group still without a deal, with super-utilityman Brock Holt, who ranked 33rd, the other. Of the eight remaining position player free agents who were worth at least 1.0 WAR last year, he’s the only one still in his 20s, and he has the highest projection for 2020 from among that group (1.6 WAR). He was projected by both Kiley McDaniel and our crowd to receive a three-year deal at around $13 million, and is the only player remaining on the board whom either source thought would get more than a two-year deal. So what gives?
For one thing, Puig has some significant holes and unflattering trends within his game:
- He was above-average against lefties last year (.279/.357/.434, 105 wRC+), but it was his first year since 2016 that was true. Over his past three years, he’s made 452 PA against southpaws and has hit just .225/.314/.359 (79 wRC+), compared to .265/.334/.478 (112 wRC+) in 1,625 PA against righties.
- Meanwhile, his swinging strike rate (13.6%), strikeout rate (21.8%), and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.0) were all his worst marks since 2016, in part because during his four months with the Reds, he swung at 36.2% of pitches outside the zone, his highest rate since his rookie season and 4.5% above his career average. Between that and his overall swing rate (55.3% with Cincinnati, higher than in any previous season), there’s a case to be made that he was pressing.
- He’s fallen off defensively. Per UZR, he’s gone from 11.8 runs above average in right field in 2017 to -3.6 in ’18 to -0.7 last year. Per DRS, his trend goes from 18 runs above average in 2017 to six above in ’18 to dead even in ’19. Per Statcast, as Tony Wolfe recently pointed out, he’s been especially poor (sixth percentile) when it comes to the jumps he gets on balls.
Given those trends, betting on Puig to be an everyday player who’s a significant asset on both sides of the ball, who’s serviceable against pitchers of both hands, and who’s able to settle into his new job seamlessly — all of that entails some risk.
Second, Puig brings with him quite a reputation, not only for occasionally spectacular play but for inducing no shortage of headaches. Memories of his time in Los Angeles, where his tardiness remained a problem even after it stopped being headline-worthy, still linger. His lack of preparation — including reports of his tearing up positioning cards given to him by coaches — and his on-field recklessness rankled coaches and teammates. Once he was in Cincinnati, he even conceded that during his Dodgers tenure, “I never worked hard… The last couple years, I didn’t work hard because I still have a contract to go. Now I think I’ll work hard more than any year in my life.” That’s not exactly what a team considering signing him to a multiyear deal wants to hear.
To be fair, Puig is said to have won over his teammates and to have fit in well in both Cincinnati and Cleveland, though there were rumblings that Puig rubbed Indians manager Terry Francona the wrong way despite the outfielder’s positive words about his skipper. In October, club president Chris Antonetti gave Puig mixed reviews in the context of keeping open the possibility of a return: “He’s really an enjoyable guy to be around. He’s engaging. So, from that standpoint he was great… We saw moments on the field where he was a catalyst for us, and there were also moments where you just shook your head.”
Third, Puig landed in a free agent market that had several other decent right field options. Nick Castellanos, Marcell Ozuna, and Kole Calhoun were all worth at least 2.0 WAR last year, while Avisaíl García just missed (1.8 WAR), and Corey Dickerson was worth 1.0 WAR in just 78 games while posting a 127 wRC+ in between his myriad injuries. Of that group, all but Calhoun and Dickerson are under 30 as well; all but Castellanos ended up signing deals worth $20 million or less, either for one or two years.
For as exciting as Puig may be when at the top of his game, not only is it tough to make the case that he’s worth a longer and more lucrative commitment than most of the alternatives, but he’s also part of a tier of players that has felt the squeeze in recent winters. As Craig Edwards noted back in November, players with contracts estimated by our crowdsource to wind up in the $10 million to $40 million range — the niche Puig was expected to land — wound up getting 36.1% less than predicted, while those in the $40 million to $80 million range fell short by 19.7%, and those pegged for less than $10 million fell short by $16.8%. For players of Puig’s caliber, that’s not just lower-than-expected annual salaries, that’s three-year deals turning into two-year deals. Separately and more recently, Edwards showed that players projected to produce 0-2 WAR have been paid 5.7% less per projected win than free agents as a group over the past three seasons, and 13.7% less per win this winter. Those two findings suggest that a two-year, $24 million deal might have been a more realistic expectation than a three-year, $39 million one.
So where could he wind up at this late stage? While the Giants and Rays were both reportedly interested — not necessarily at those prices — as of Friday, San Francisco already has two corner outfielders whom they quite reasonably would like to see match last year’s cheap production, namely Alex Dickerson and Mike Yastrzemski, and on Friday added to that mix outfielder Hunter Pence on a one-year deal and Billy Hamilton on a minor-league deal, at which point team sources characterized negotiations with Puig as “all but dead.” On Sunday, the Rays acquired Manuel Margot from the Padres, adding him to a mix that already includes Austin Meadows, Kevin Kiermaier, Hunter Renfroe, José Martínez, and Randy Arozarena. So those doors are probably closed.
Among apparent contenders, the Angels are dead last in the Depth Charts rankings in right field, with Brian Goodwin down for nearly two-thirds of the playing time and top prospect Jo Adell projected to take up most of the balance. The now-defunct trade for the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson was supposed to address this, and while Puig might cost more money than Pederson, whose mockery of an arbitration hearing left him with a salary of $7.75 million, he won’t cost them a young player of the caliber of Luis Rengifo.
The Cardinals rank 27th among right fielders with Dexter Fowler, who’s projected to provide just a 97 wRC+ and 0.8 WAR, as the regular and Tyler O’Neil the top alternative. Leave aside the fact that St. Louis is on the hook for $16.5 million for Fowler’s services both this year and next, and forget that they’ve avoided spending money this winter in a fashion nearly as conspicuous as that of the Red Sox and Cubs — just $15 million committed to free agents Kwang-hyun Kim, Adam Wainwright, and Matt Wieters — while watching Ozuna depart to sign just a one-year, $18 million deal with Atlanta. Given Puig’s history against the Cardinals dating back to the 2013 and ’14 postseasons, we might rightly expect hell to freeze over before he winds up teammates with Yadier Molina.
The Reds are just one rung ahead of the Cardinals in the rankings, with Aristides Aquino backed up by Jesse Winker, and Castellanos actually slated for left, where he’s played just 74.1 innings in the majors. Nick Senzel could also crowd the picture when he’s healthy, so a reunion seems unlikely. The 25th-ranked Padres, if they could find a taker for Wil Myers, could justify playing Puig ahead of Trent Grisham, but they don’t seem likely to spend more money without unloading Myers, who has $61 million still remaining on his deal.
Speaking of reunions, the Indians have again skimped on the outfield corners, a factor that significantly contributed to their missing the playoffs last year. They’re 20th in right field on the basis of some combination of Tyler Naquin and Oscar Mercado (who belongs in center ahead of Delino DeShields) and 26th in left based on a combo of Jake Bauers, Greg Allen, and Jordan Luplow, the last of whom did hit last year (137 wRC+ and 2.2 WAR in just 261 PA). For as sensible as a return would be, the team is throwing nickels around like they’re manhole covers; via Roster Resource, they’re projected for just a $96 million payroll, $24 million less than last year’s final number.
As for noncontenders, the Tigers — whose Victor Reyes led right field combination ranks 28th — were said to be “a possibility” when it came to signing an outfielder as of late January, but GM Al Avila said Puig “”isn’t a priority.” The Mariners, who will be without Mitch Haniger for a couple of months after he underwent sports hernia surgery, rank 25th at the position and 29th in left field; between the two corners, Kyle Lewis is projected to produce just 0.2 WAR in 553 PA. Despite his hitting six homers in his first 10 games after being called up in September, the reality is that Lewis is a 2016 first-round pick who has never played at Triple-A, and who has significant contact issues (38.7% strikeout rate in MLB, 29.4% at Double-A last year). He could use more seasoning, and signing Puig would buy the Mariners some time.
That’s where Puig finds himself these days, potentially more stopgap than star, with a multiyear deal probably a stretch. At this point, even avoiding a cut on last year’s $9.7 million salary might be a challenge. Given his performance trends and his reputation, he’s painted himself into a bit of a corner, but the good news is that if his past statements are anything to go by, Puig should be particularly motivated in 2020.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.