Chapter 1 – Yasiel Puig the curiosity
Before any of us regular schlubs knew who Yasiel Puig was, scouts knew. But not a lot. He’d played in just 179 games for the Elefantes de Cienfuegos, starting from when he was 17. He acquitted himself well, missed a season due to injury, had a breakout 19-year-old season, was suspended for hazy disciplinary reasons and then defected. It took a year to escape the bureaucracy, but before anyone knew who he was, he was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers for seven years, $42 million.
He was a symbol of excess. The Dodgers were, at the time, the New Dodgers, riding around the town square with bags of money, throwing money into the crowd from the back of a diamond-encrusted horse. They wanted to prove to the world that these weren’t Frank McCourt’s Dodgers. There would be no penny-pinching or shady shell games with the payroll. The Dodgers were going to make the New York Yankees look like the Tampa Bay Rays, and they weren’t going to be quiet about it. And, sure, they were going to use limited evidence to spend $42 million on a player. Why wouldn’t they?
This might explain one of the first headlines about the Puig signing:
Dodgers Sign Yasiel Puig To Puzzling Deal
The opening paragraphs:
The Dodgers appear to have made a statement with an expensive Cuban signing, but the message they sent across baseball has mostly elicited the same response:
What are the Dodgers thinking?
This was before the wave of high-profile signings broke the market, before the Jose Abreus gave way to the Rusney Castillos. It was galling to see the Dodgers throw so much money thrown at an unknown wild card prospect like Puig. What a risk! What kinds of rewards could they possibly expect?
Chapter 2 — Yasiel Puig, the superstar
Puig didn’t just exceed expectations. He didn’t just show up and give the Dodgers a good baseball player, with everyone around the organization exclaiming, “Wow! Thank goodness for this good baseball player!” He was a sensation, a phenomenon, a thought experiment willed into being. He was doing things that baseball wasn’t used to, that baseball had never seen.
Yasiel Puig played baseball like he had bees in his pants. And we couldn’t get enough of it.
By “we,” I mean everyone. If you hated him and his act, you couldn’t get enough, because there was always a reason to hate him more. If you loved him and his act, it was the same thing, but for opposite reasons. There was always, always, always something, and it was glorious.
For example, this should have been a normal infield hit.
That was in the ninth inning, with the Dodgers down by three runs. There was no serious tactical advantage that would have come with Puig bolting for second if the throw came to first. It was electric, but it was also dumb. It was all risk, no reward … for the team. But, oh, how there was reward for us. This was a player who was so convinced that he was supernaturally talented, he dared the world to prove him wrong. He wasn’t just a video game baseball player — he was Kratos hacking his way across Baseball Gods of War.
Puig was the most arrogant baseball player we’d ever seen, and it worked because the arrogance was entirely deserved. I went back and watched every hit in his first month. Marc Normandin detailed one of his absurd game-winning hits. There was a section on this site titled “The Daily Puig,” where we looked for the most Puig-like moments in baseball. The Puig-like moments were, check this out, usually courtesy of Puig. Headlines included:
- Yasiel Puig murdered a baseball
- Puig violently collides with wall
- Puig singing, dancing, wearing a Puig sweatshirt
- Yasiel Puig flips a cricket bat in Australia
- Yasiel Puig pins Ryu, tickles him
- Hot Puig-on-Trout action
Was it overkill? Not if people wanted to read about him, which they did. Not if people weren’t interested in every single thing he did because he made baseball absolutely fascinating, which they were. Would we watch movies about Yasiel Puig? Oh, heck yes, we would. We would watch all the movies in the world about him. Puig Puig Puig Puig Puig Puig Puig Puig Puig Puig Puig Puig Puig Puig Puig .
Chapter 3 — Flying too close to the sun on wings made out of Puig
When did it all start going wrong? We would laugh-marvel at plays like this …
… but they were red flags, all the same. Baseball doesn’t always come so easily. It’s supposed to be a humbling game for everyone. Slumps happen. Wasted seasons happen. What was going to happen when an injury temporarily sapped Puig’s bat speed, or when his frame filled out even more with age and he got less mobile, or when pitchers re-re-re-adjusted to his re-re-adjustments of how to pitch him?
It wasn’t an issue in 2014. Puig’s plate discipline got better, and he was only 23. He played in 148 games, and he probably did something worth talking about in 147 of them. His contract and production made him one of the most valuable players in baseball, and that’s before you got to the star power and PR value. He was on the covers of magazines and video games. This was going to last forever … forever … forever.
Some talent evaluators felt his muscularity reduced his dexterity. This forced him to guess what pitchers were throwing, rather than observing and reacting.
“To get his body going, he has to decide to swing so much earlier than most other hitters,” one rival scout said. “That’s why you see him swinging at sliders in the other batter’s box.”
The hamstring issues didn’t help, but neither did Puig’s unwillingness to listen to the Dodgers’ recommendations for preventative exercise. The production slipped and slipped. Suddenly it wasn’t cute that he had bees in his pants. He was just a dude who wasn’t hitting or acting like a part of a single-minded collective. He stood out, but now it was in the worst way.
A new manager looked like it was going to help, but Puig slumped. Their relationship slumped. Everything slumped. And now Puig is in Oklahoma City. His reaction was probably more restrained than this.
Not just because this is a crushing development in a fascinating career, but because everything is more restrained. The bees are gone from his pants. In their place, we have a scratchy house cat that likes to be left alone, for the most part. The Dodgers haven’t seen the explosive speed and preternatural talent. The taunting of the baseball gods has stopped because the body isn’t cooperating.
And all of that makes it pretty easy to get sick of the dude, even if you’re a statistically minded front office with all the patience in the world.
Chapter 4 — The chapter after Chapter 3
This might be the most fascinating part of the saga. This is the what-now, and there just isn’t a good answer.
Puig has almost certainly played his last game for the Dodgers. It’s the end of an era, but what an era. You can laugh at the spandex and big hair of an ‘80s metal band, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t exciting to watch them set furniture on fire and throw it out of the window. Now the Dodgers have to figure out what to do.
Do they put him on waivers, attempt to negotiate a deal, then pull him off to deal him in the offseason?
Do they just let him go to the team that claims him?
Do they let him rot in Triple-A and see if he learns his lesson?
Is it even possible that, if there’s a lesson to learn, this will be the appropriate and effective method of teaching it?
It’s tempting to remember the good times, when everything was All Puig, All The Time, and it made sense, but now I feel like an enabler. That we should have expected this once he aged and sank closer to his Francoeur-like fate, and it shouldn’t have been so exciting to watch him play like the rules of physics didn’t apply.
As is, someone will take a chance on him. He’s still just 25 years old, born in the same year as Travis Shaw and Jerad Eickhoff, still young enough to be a rookie, if not a prospect. The declining performance of his bat, health and tolerability would worry teams if he were making $20 million a year. Instead, there should be a least a few teams climbing over each other, thinking they might have found a yard sale Degas that’s buried under a half-inch of smoke damage.
It shouldn’t have been like this, though. This was supposed to be the face of the Dodgers for the next 10 years. Puig was supposed to get the headlines while Clayton Kershaw quietly mastered the game of baseball in the background. Instead, he’s a Traded Dodger Walking, and he might be a story we tell young baseball players around a campfire in a decade.
My guess is that a change of scenery does wonders, and the latent talent hasn’t gone anywhere. And in the future, when looking at the odd statistical ledger, where Puig was incredible until he was lousy until he was traded for foodstuffs, we’ll think, “Now why did the Dodgers do that?” Yet it all makes sense from here. Everything the Dodgers have done with Puig makes sense this year.
And that’s the problem. Puig isn’t supposed to make sense. That was his charm, his gift. Once he started playing like other ballplayers, while never toning down the Puigfires that raged inside, he became expendable.
Still young. Still talented. Still a better chance to be great again than your favorite prospect. But this isn’t your standard baseball career arc. This isn’t your standard baseball story, and it’s only going to get weirder. In a way, I’m not sure what we should have expected differently.