The Los Angeles Dodgers have big plans for Yasiel Puig in 2014, but some of the headlines he has been making may be cause for concern for his role with the team.
The typical criticisms of his off-field behavior and "non-traditional" playing style are generally unwarranted and not of any real concern.
The Dodgers' real issues with Puig should lie in his physical readiness to take on a leadoff and leadership role with the team.
According to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly wants Puig in the leadoff role, as opposed to Carl Crawford, for his dynamic skill set and better righty-lefty balance at the top of the lineup.
The Dodgers have strong left-handed batters in Crawford, Adrian Gonzales and Andre Ethier, part of what makes their lineup such a potent one.
In this video, courtesy of MLB.com, Mattingly further explains that Puig hasn't proven to be a capable RBI guy quite yet, but could benefit from the extra at-bats the leadoff spot would afford him.
When Puig showed up to camp 26 pounds heavier than last season, Mattingly told Mark Saxon of ESPNLosAngeles.com, "We don't feel it's going to be a problem, but we're paying attention to it, put it that way."
The platonic ideal of a leadoff hitter is someone who is a difficult out, and can move well along the basepaths. By these metrics, Puig is definitely the Dodgers' best option as a leadoff hitter, especially when compared to the other options the Dodgers have on the team.
|Chone Figgins (2012)||66||.181||19||.268||4|
Crawford is the best option other than Puig, but his career OBP of .332 leaves much to be desired. The lightning quick Gordon and veteran utilityman Chone Figgins fit the mold, but neither player seems capable of hitting at a major league level right now.
Matt Kemp, when healthy, is definitely athletic enough but his proven RBI ability would make him a waste at the top of the batting order.
There is also the mysterious second baseman Alex Guerrero, but the newest Cuban addition to the roster is transitioning directly to the majors from a foreign league, a tough task for any player.
Puig's weight could be an issue when it comes to running the basepaths, certainly part of his dynamic skill set, as he was able to make up for some questionable decisions to steal with his remarkable speed.
However, he was still caught stealing eight times last season, which goes against the mantra of creating outs at the top of the lineup.
The other concern about Puig, which is compounded by the fluctuation in his weight, will be his ability to stay on the field.
Puig has suffered from some shoulder soreness as well as back inflammation so far this spring. Outside of Hanley Ramirez, Puig is the player the Dodgers can least afford to succumb to nagging injuries. Neither Crawford nor Kemp are safe bets to stay healthy for an entire year, and a hobbled outfield would certainly hurt the Dodgers in a meaningful way
Mattingly, taking things in stride as usual, seemed almost resigned by the prospect of Puig's nagging injuries, via Kevin Baxter of the Los Angles Times:
"I try never to figure out Yasiel," said Mattingly, who added that Puig seemed to be having trouble swinging the bat Wednesday. "I just go with what the trainer tells me. We move forward."
Puig is hitting just .231 so far in the Cactus League, not a good sign for a potential leadoff hitter. But the Wild Horse himself isn't worried that the numbers don't measure up to the phenomenal ones he put up last season. Via Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register:
"I'm having good at-bats. Pitchers are just making good pitches," Puig said. "I know people want me to be getting more hits and I want to get more hits to help my team. But I'm working hard to get prepared for the season."
The Dodgers staff will hope that the batting average picks up and isn't due to his weight or back pain issues.
Despite the worries, Puig has continued to display some excellent progress in certain areas of his game. He recently made a great throw to help nab fellow phenom Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, who was angling for an inside the park home run.
Some could argue that Puig would have made that catch last season, but the misjudgment is probably due more to his unfamiliarity with centerfield—just six starts last season there—than with any diminished athleticism.
Not to mention, Puig did a great job of firing a throw to his cutoff man, Ramirez, a baseball fundamental he became notorious for missing last season.
There is always time to prove the doubters wrong, and Yasiel Puig has the freakish potential to obliterate any argument against him.
The Dodgers will be monitoring him closely, as their plans to make it to the top of the league start with Puig being effective at the top of the order.