Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig just started his fourth season in the MLB, and it’s been an interesting ride, to say the least.
His raw talent has never come into question, but it’s been his immaturity – both on and off the field – that normally led people to wonder whether he could truly experience sustained success. While his lone All-Star season came in 2014, it was what he accomplished upon first getting called up as a rookie in 2013 that got everyone’s attention.
Through the first 38 games of his big-league career (151 at-bats), Puig slashed an eye-popping .391/.422/.616 with eight home runs, eight doubles, 19 RBI and 28 runs scored. That propelled him to finishing second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting behind Miami Marlins ace and fellow Cuban, Jose Fernandez.
While his All-Star campaign of 2014 was a good one, most of Puig’s numbers took a noticeable dip. It wouldn’t have mattered if the trend didn’t continue in 2015, producing a .255/.322/.436 triple slash with 11 homers and 38 RBI in just 79 games.
Hamstring issues derailed his chances of finding consistent playing time in a pretty crowded Dodgers outfield, and by the time he was healthy, former manager Don Mattingly opted for more dependable options in the postseason. With a surplus of outfielders and Puig causing headaches due to his lack of work ethic and multiple run-ins with teammates, his name has consistently appeared in trade rumors.
With too many outfielders for not enough spots, investigating a trade for Puig made sense. He was not a good influence in the clubhouse, but he could intrigue other teams given his age, potential and contract status. But now? He’s transformed from an annoying spare part into a crucial piece of LA’s outfield.
After Mattingly left for the Marlins, ownership brought in a new coaching staff with rookie manager Dave Roberts leading the way, and it appears a different approach has helped Puig make improvements in his attitude and overall demeanor.
Some would say this is coming four years too late, but it’s better late than never. Plus, baseball hasn’t done a lot in the past when it comes to helping Cuban players adjust to life in America, as Scott Miller of Bleacher Report notes here.
From what Miller detailed in his article, 2016 could be the year in which Puig finally gets his act together. He displayed a desire to be a better teammate, has had no problem owning up to mistakes made on the field, and most importantly, he reported to Spring Training in very good physical shape.
It’s still early, but initial returns have been fantastic for the Dodgers, who could really use a healthy and productive Puig right now. Injuries to impact players happen in some way to every team, but Los Angeles has dealt with a lot of them in a short period of time.
While they’re already waiting for Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy to rejoin the rotation, their perceived depth on the mound took a hit with Brett Anderson undergoing back surgery and being out until the All-Star break. As if the injury bug wasn’t bad enough on the mound, it spread to the outfield, too.
- Andre Ethier is out until June with a leg fracture.
- Carl Crawford is on the 15-day disabled list with a back injury.
- Scott Van Slyke was placed on the 15-day DL Tuesday with lower-back irritation.
- While Joc Pederson is off to a good start, he’s struck out 11 times in 25 at-bats. So, he’s like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get.
This leaves Roberts with a very thin crew manning the grassy areas at Chavez Ravine. That group includes Puig, Pederson, Enrique Hernandez and Trayce Thompson. Looking for other options since he’s no longer on the DL and Chase Utley is off to a good start at second base, Howie Kendrick could get exposed to the outfield.
So, even though the infield is pretty rock solid with guys like Adrian Gonzalez, Corey Seager and Justin Turner around the diamond, the outfield needs someone to lead the way and be a constant presence.
In the past, fans would shudder at knowing it was up to Puig to fill that role. But this year, he looks ready, willing and capable to thrive in it. Judging from what this team has had to deal with so far in 2016, watching them start slow would have been understandable.
While they have lost four of their last five games and stand at 4-4 on the young season, Puig is doing everything he can to help contribute (a lot of the blame falls on the bullpen). Through 29 at-bats, he’s hitting .379/.500/.655 with four extra-base hits (one double, two triples, one homer), four RBI and seven runs scored, along with his walk and strikeout rates doing things we’ve never seen it before.
It’s tough to trust him given his track record, but Mattingly leaving and Roberts entering essentially gave him a fresh start without actually getting traded. The talent has always been there, but it finally seems like the effort and desire have caught up to that.
To compete in what should be an exciting NL West race this year, the Dodgers need every single healthy player to perform up to or exceed expectations. Puig appears focused on being a good teammate and is taking his job seriously. If he can flash that potential from 2013 and 2014 again, he could end up being the biggest difference marker for Los Angeles.
After months of debating whether or not it was a good idea to trade him away, the organization is getting concrete validation on a daily basis that not pulling the trigger was the best idea after all.
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