10 Predictions for Dodgers Star Yasiel Puig's Sophomore MLB Season
The mystery of Yasiel Puig was revealed after he burst onto the big league scene in early June and helped carry the Los Angeles Dodgers to an unbelievable run from worst to first in the NL West and all the way to the National League Championship Series.
Puig's seven-year, $42 million deal in June 2012 almost seemed like an afterthought after all of the offseason buzz surrounding fellow Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who signed a four-year, $36 million deal less than five months earlier. Two years later, it's the 23-year-old Puig who has stolen all of the spotlight.
Despite five months of Puig becoming an overnight sensation and a household name last year, it's hard to know what to expect in 2014.
Baseball is a game of ups and downs. There are huge injury risks involved, and players rarely make it through a 162-game season at full health. In addition, constant adjustments need to be made as opponents discover weaknesses.
While the game appeared almost too easy for Puig during his rookie season, it's hard to know how he'll play when he has to deal with minor injuries or how he'll adjust to the strategies of opposing pitchers or whether he can stay out of trouble off the field.
Here are 10 predictions for Puig's sophomore MLB season.
Prolonged Slump Will Lead to Talk of Triple-A Demotion
Prior to the 2013 postseason, the ESPN Stats and Info team tried to answer the question "How do you pitch to Yasiel Puig"?. The conclusion was that lefties needed to pitch him up in the zone and right-handers should try to get him to chase out of the zone. Staying away from him early in the count was also a key as he had done much of his damage on the first two pitches.
While the Atlanta Braves didn't have the right formula to contain him in the NLDS—Puig went 8-for-17—the rest of the league had appeared to be catching up to him toward the end of the regular season. Over his last 27 games, he hit just .205 (18-for-88) with 25 strikeouts. While he still was able to do plenty of damage at the plate, hitting six homers during that span, it was clear that he needed to make some adjustments if he wanted to continue at his MVP-caliber pace.
The St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff also shut him down in the NLCS like no other group of pitchers had done the entire season. He had four singles, a triple and one walk in 23 plate appearances with 10 strikeouts.
With regular playing time, players much less talented than Puig are capable of running into mistake pitches and hitting them over the wall 20 times in a season. A prolonged slump on this Dodgers team, however, could find him back in the minors or in a part-time role behind Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp.
While I don't think it will get to the point of a minor league demotion, I predict that there will be a point during the season where it's discussed.
Epic Streaks of Greatness
Puig's first big league month ended up being one extended hot streak (1.218 OPS, 8 HR, 6 2B) that may have created unattainable expectations that will follow him throughout his career. But can he do that for a week or two and carry his team multiple times throughout the season? You better believe it.
From July 23-28, Puig went 10-for-23 with two homers, a double, four walks and two stolen bases.
From August 1-17, Puig went 20-for-55 with a homer, six doubles, a triple, 11 walks and 11 runs.
From August 26-September 1, Puig went 11-for-24 with two homers, two doubles and three stolen bases.
From September 11-21, Puig went 9-for-35 with three homers, two doubles and six walks.
In four NLDS games against the Braves, Puig went 8-for-17 with a double.
That's five different very hot streaks aside from his blazing start. The "in-between" cold streaks will be more severe in 2014, in my opinion, but I predict that he'll put together at least five or six of these streaks of greatness.
Opponents Will Be Offended by His Antics More Than Once
Not only did Puig make a name for himself with his hitting ability, power, speed and defense, he also drew much attention because of the way he rubbed opponents the wrong way with his emotional style of play, especially when it came to celebrating his home runs.
In a quote passed along by ESPN.com, St. Louis Cardinals star Carlos Beltran expressed his displeasure during the NLCS.
"As a player, I just think he doesn't know [how to act]," Beltran said. "That's what I think. He really doesn't know. He must think that he's still playing somewhere else."
While Puig says he plans on toning it down some in 2014, according to Dylan Hernandez of The Los Angeles Times, that seems to apply more to making better decisions to help his team on the field, like hitting the cutoff man.
Puig understands that he's in the entertainment business and doesn't sound like a man who feels it's necessary to cut down on his level of emotion after doing something great.
I predict that at least two opposing players will express their disgust publicly over Puig's celebrations in 2014. It will only be the opponents who he's hitting homers against, however, that will complain, while baseball fans will continue to be entertained.
Ethier Overtakes Puig for Playing Time
At full health, the Dodgers have four outfielders on their 25-man roster who would start for just about any team in baseball, if not all 30 teams. While they've at least entertained the idea of trading one of the three not named Yasiel Puig, they probably did the smart thing by holding on to their depth with Matt Kemp returning from surgeries to his shoulder and ankle.
If all four are healthy at the same time, the expectations are that Andre Ethier (pictured) would be the odd man out. But it should also be noted that the 31-year-old Ethier was one of the keys to the Dodgers' second-half revival.
Despite a terrible start, Ethier was able to remain in the lineup because he was needed in center field with Kemp on the disabled list. He finally heated up and finished the season with an .873 OPS over his last 82 games.
If Puig does go into a prolonged slump, as I am predicting, Ethier will overtake him for regular playing time, at least temporarily.
Defensive Lapses Will Continue
Puig made three defensive misplays in Game 6 of the NLCS, helping the St. Louis Cardinals finish off the Dodgers with a 9-0 victory to advance to the World Series. This was not uncommon after a season in which Puig probably made as many bad plays with his arm as the good ones that had the baseball world buzzing about how his arm was as good as Roberto Clemente's.
Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax, who is a special advisor to team owner Mark Walter, acknowledges how talented Puig is but would like to see an improvement in fundamentals.
"You have a great arm, you want to show it off, but I'd like to see him throw it to the right place all the time," Koufax said, per Dylan Hernandez of The Los Angeles Times. "He's young. The biggest thing is he's not played against competition as good as he is. So you're always able to have your physical ability make up for whatever else you do."
Puig will get better with time. Not in year two, though. I predict his learning curve to be slow and several more fielding gaffes to be made. I also predict that manager Don Mattingly will shake his head in disbelief after each one.
Dazzling Defense Will Continue
With the bad comes a lot of spectacular defensive play that only a player with Puig's talent can manage. He may not always hit the cutoff man or take proper angles on fly balls, but Puig's speed and arm strength make him a regular threat for a defensive gem.
Whether it's throwing out a runner at third base from deep right field or making a sensational diving catch, Puig will electrify the baseball world on more than a few occasions in 2014.
Off-the-Field Troubles Will Continue to Surface
Yasiel Puig likes to drive really, really fast, as he's proven on two occasions since signing with the Dodgers in 2012.
While charges for reckless driving were eventually dropped on each occasion—Puig was driving 110 mph in a 70 mph zone when he was arrested in Florida back in December; he was driving 97 mph in a 50 mph zone when he was arrested in Tennessee while playing for Double-A Chattanooga in April—the two incidents put Puig's ability to make good decisions off the field in question.
Puig came into camp 26 pounds heavier than he was at the end of the 2013 regular season, according to Mark Saxon of ESPN Los Angeles. He probably didn't feel like he needed to stay in tip-top shape after the ease in which he dominated the game as a rookie.
Maybe he feels like he's above the law, as well. The Dodgers can only hope that driving really fast—at least twice—is the biggest off-the-field mistake he'll ever make. My prediction is that it won't be.
First All-Star Selection
It could take years of Puig playing like an All-Star before his peers will fully respect him. Five seasons from now, though, they'll be saying, "That's just Puig being Puig" and will be more accepting of his celebrations and questionable off-field antics just as was the case with longtime MLB star Manny Ramirez.
Baseball fans, however, are already enamored with his talent and won't hesitate to vote him in as a starting outfielder for the 2014 All-Star Game because they'll remember seeing him in so many highlight reels hitting a mammoth home run or showing off his powerful right arm in right field.
Barring an awful first three months of the season, expect to see Puig in the NL starting lineup on July 15 at Target Field in Minnesota.
Puig Will Take a Backseat to Cespedes in 2014
Another MVP-caliber season isn't out of the question for Yasiel Puig. But talented countryman Yoenis Cespedes, who plays in Northern California with the Oakland Athletics, is also capable of such a season.
After being overshadowed by Puig in 2013, Cespedes is quietly working his way back after a down season and has put on 15 pounds of muscle and shortened his swing, according to Jane Lee of MLB.com.
His hitting coach, former big leaguer Chili Davis, thinks that the 28-year-old Cespedes can be one of the best in the game.
"He could hit 30 or 40 (home runs) easily," Davis said. "Offensively, the sky's the limit. He's in a position in the lineup to drive in a lot of runs, and if he's focused, he can drive in 120-plus runs. I see him as a guy that has the ability to be one of the top five players in the game if he wants to be. He understands if he wants to get there; he has to have the discipline."
On a very deep and talented A's team that has been one of the best in baseball since the middle of the 2012 season, Cespedes has a very good chance to bring the spotlight back to him a year after Puig stole it.
I predict that, this time next offseason, more people will be talking about Cespedes' amazing 2014 season and less about what Puig did or didn't do.
Strong Finish Leads to MVP-Caliber Numbers
A regular season filled with extreme ups and downs will end with a bang for Yasiel Puig.
Keep in mind that he's still capable of entering the last month of the season with strong overall numbers even if he goes into several week-long slumps and maybe one or two that go beyond that. His hot streaks will be that impressive.
I'm predicting that he'll head into September with an .875 OPS, 24 homers and 18 stolen bases. By season's end, though, he'll have a .900-plus OPS with 32 homers and 22 stolen bases. He'll also have over 100 runs scored, 80 runs batted in and 35 doubles.
Last year's MVP, Andrew McCutchen, finished the season with a .911 OPS, 21 homers, 84 runs batted in, 38 doubles, 97 runs and 27 stolen bases. At the least, Puig will be in the top five of the voting after coming in 15th last season.