Yasiel Puig. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Yasiel Puig picked a bad time to hit the skids, instead of the baseball.
The right fielder tabbed the “Wild Horse” by Vin Scully in 2013 is set to become a free agent following the 2019 World Series, whether he plays in it or not. And barring a trade to a contender this summer (more on that in a minute), he’d better find something other than a pennant race to use as a motivating force.
As of this morning Puig is hitting a disappointing .206/.256/.368 for his last-place Cincinnati Reds. He does have seven home runs and 23 RBIs to start the season — which puts him on pace for 26 and 85 — but that alone may not count for much in next winter’s market. And perhaps not with the 42 strikeouts to date in 2019 — that’s 154 Ks over a full season — which would beat his previous high in 2014 by 30. And certainly not with the baggage which may be a part of the bargain for a signing club.
Puig’s gotten off to slow starts before, however, in both 2016 and 2017, and as recently as last spring, which was his slowest start ever. Through games of May 16, 2018, Puig was hitting .202/.261/.303 with two home runs and nine RBIs, and managed to finish with a .267/.327/.494 full-season line, with 23 homers and 63. RBIs.
Zoom out and note that during his first two seasons of 2013 and 2014, Puig hit .319/.391/.534 with 19 HR and 42 RBIs in 104 games and .296/.382/.480 with 16 and 69 in 148 games, respectively. He hasn’t matched his rookie success since. In seasons three through six of his Dodgers career, Puig’s batting averages have been .255, .263, .263 and .267; the on base percentages .322, .323, .346 and .327; and the slugging .436, .416, .487 and .494.
My guess is that absent a resounding turnaround to his season, and perhaps a trade to a contender which results in another chance to shine on the big stage — and assuming he takes advantage of that opportunity to the fullest — Puig is looking at a less-than-inspiring free agent agent contract come winter. But using the last two free agent classes as a measuring stick, let’s see if we can find some examples that might give Puig and his agent reason to smile. I’d go back farther if I thought those past markets correlate particularly well with the next one in the future.
In terms of age and position I see no great matches in the off-season of 2017-2018. The Red Sox signed outfielder slash designated hitter 30-year-old J.D. Martinez to a five-year $120 million contract. But c’mon; Puig, 28, is no J.D. Martinez.
Then-30-year-old outfielder Jay Bruce, since traded to Cleveland, signed a three-year $39 million deal with the Mets following a season in which he hit .254/.324/.508, with 36 HR and 101 ribs, much of it in the same ballpark Puig calls home now. Puig can meet or beat Bruce’s batting line, but the power numbers?
Thirty-two-year-old centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, coming off a .300/.363/.440, 15 and 49 campaign, earned a five-year Brewers deal worth $80 million. Carlos Gomez, who hit .255/.340/.462, 17 and 51 as a 31-year-old Rangers outfielder, got only a $4 million one-year deal to play in Tampa, and with a late (March 3, 2018) signing at that. And Jarrod Dyson swung a two-year deal worth $7.5 million to play his 33 and 34-year-old seasons in Arizona.
Outfielders and utility men signing free agent contracts this past winter include Derek Dietrich (Reds, minor league deal), Lonnie Chisenhall (Pirates, one-year, $2.75 mil), Avisail Garcia (Rays, one-year, $3.5 mil plus incentives), Billy Hamilton (Royals, one-year, $5.25 mil) and Chris Owings (Royals, one-year, $3 mil plus incentives). Perhaps with an excellent rest of the 2019 season Puig can blow those dollars out of the water. But what if the statistical forecast doesn’t manifest itself?
Looking at infielders from last year’s class, we find Tim Beckham (Mariners, one-year, $1.75 mil) Justin Bour (Angels, one-year, $2.5 mil), Freddy Galvis (Jays, one-year, $5 mil guarantee) and Jonathan Schooop (Twins, one-year, $7.5 mil). I’m quite sure none of those figures will please Mr. Puig.
Since Puig played in a pennant race every year of his career as a Dodger, we don’t know how playing out the string early in a place like Ohio will affect him. Maybe he’ll catch fire as the season progresses, as he has in the past, or perhaps he goes the other direction completely. Then again, maybe Cincy becomes a contender. Nah, I don’t think so either.
CINCINNATI, OH – APRIL 23: Yasiel Puig #66 of the Cincinnati Reds hits a sacrifice fly to drive in a run in the sixth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Great American Ball Park on April 23, 2019 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Reds defeated the Braves 7-6. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Based on what I know about Puig I’m confident in predicting a line that looks something likes this: .265/.325/.475, with 25 homers and 70 RBIs. With those numbers I think he’d be fortunate to get a deal like the one Bruce signed two winters ago — three years and $39 mil. With below-average statistics that match or exceed his current pace (but not by much), he’s looking at a one-year make-good contract for somewhere around $9 or $10 mil.
A landing spot seems like a bit of a crap shoot at this point as well. If the Reds are happy with the numbers (and the man), that’s one possibility. And they might go a little higher to keep the player in the fold. Miami, with its Cuban American population, seems like an obvious fit too, assuming Puig’s former boss, Don Mattingly, has left the scene (any wagers on that topic?).
Beyond those clubs, and again, assuming the numbers I mentioned above, I can’t see a single contending team committing to Yasiel Puig. I might be wrong about that, but that’s my thinking. Which leaves the Wild Horse with his choice of these fine franchises: A’s, Jays, Nationals, Rangers, Pirates and Tigers. And, oh, can’t you just see number 66 in San Francisco? I can.
And remember, glove conquers all.