Yasiel Puig is probably lucky that last year, in his first camp as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, he didn't have the spring training he's having this time around. Otherwise, and this is hard to imagine, he still might be a relative unknown to the baseball world rather than Hollywood's latest breakout star with a sequel on the way.
A year ago, you'll recall, the 23-year-old was the talk of Arizona while hitting a blistering .517 (30-for-58!) with 10 extra-base hits, three homers and four stolen bases. He was generally looking ready for the majors mere months after signing a seven-year, $42 million contract that many questioned at the time.
No doubt, that performance opened eyes in the Dodgers organization and made it easier for the club to call up Puig from Double-A in early June after outfielders Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford both went on the disabled list with hamstring injuries within days of each other.
This March? Well, it hasn't gone quite as well for Puig.
After breaking into the bigs and becoming an instant, polarizing success story that included helping the Dodgers climb from cellar to stellar and finishing second in the National League Rookie of the Year race to Jose Fernandez, Puig has gone just 5-for-41 (.122) this spring.
He's also faced questions in recent weeks about his conditioning after showing up to camp weighing an extra 20-25 pounds, as well as continued concerns about his makeup, especially in the wake of his second arrest for reckless driving after speeding at 110 mph in a 70 mph zone in Florida.
Switch the springs, and it's hard to imagine a scenario where Puig would have gotten much of a chance, if any, to impact the Dodgers last year.
Meanwhile, those Dodgers have arrived in Australia in preparation for Major League Baseball's first official games of the 2014 regular season on Saturday, March 22, against the Arizona Diamondbacks, so Puig doesn't have any more time to knock a few hits or lose any excess poundage that may remain.
He needs to be ready to go. The Wild Horse has to be ready to ride. Otherwise, it won't be long before everyone starts calling him an overnight sensation with a short shelf life, MLB's version of a one-man boy band.
But forget the poor showing this spring. Don't worry about those extra pounds. And while acknowledging that the off-field incidents are certainly troubling and dangerous, try not to spin them into a narrative that suggests they have any impact on Puig's abilities on the diamond.
Yasiel Puig, folks, can play baseball. And as he showed as a rookie, he can play the game at a very high level.
As for year two? "What ultimately counts is the result on the field," Puig recently told Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. "I don't know if I'll do better or worse, but I'll work hard and try to do what I did last year or even more."
Puig's aggressive, all-out-all-the-time effort needs to be reined in here and there, sure, but only to the extent that it prevents him from costing the Dodgers when he, say, overthrows the cutoff man or runs himself into an ill-advised, ill-timed out on the bases.
Puig possesses a rare set of do-it-all skills that allow him to impact any given game in any number of ways: with his bat, with his power, with his legs, with his glove and with his arm.
Not only is Puig baseball's next real live action hero—to some, he's also the villain.
Can he be expected to be as good or better than he was last year? Come on, you know what they say about sequels, right? That doesn't mean Puig's second go-round won't be entertaining, with all sorts of ups and downs and surprises.
For instance, the latest is that Puig could wind up batting in the leadoff spot often, as Hernandez reported earlier this month. He might not fit into one's preconceived idea of a conventional top-of-the-lineup hitter, but manager Don Mattingly indicated he's been considering the possibility for a very logical and justifiable reason: "I like getting him that extra at-bat."
That's actually a smart approach to lineup construction, particularly when a team lacks a no-brainer option but has a player as dynamic as Puig. Plus, as he showed in his rookie campaign, he can, in fact, handle the job:
|Yasiel Puig's Statistics By Batting Lineup Position|
Granted, citing only 28 games and just 115 plate appearances atop the order as evidence is more or less a violation punishable by the Small Sample Size Police. But guess what? Everything we know about Puig—whose rookie season began on June 3 and constituted exactly 104 games—is a small sample size.
And sure, you could make a case that Puig himself was a small sample-size wonder whose value and numbers were driven entirely by his historic first month in the majors. But a look at his statistics from July on indicates that he was still pretty darn great even after he broke in and went bonkers.
|Yasiel Puig's Statistics: June Versus July-September|
Obviously, that June was a too-good-to-be-true outlier, but a player who hits .278/.366/.470 over half a season, while also ranking in the top 30 in baseball in ISO (.208), wOBA (.369) and wRC+ (140), as Puig did thereafter, provides production at an All-Star level.
Remember: Puig did all that not only as a 22-year-old from another country being exposed to the majors for the first time, but also after pitchers had begun adjusting to him.
In fairness to Puig's critics, and to the man himself, his second season is not going to be like his first. There are bound to be new challenges to face and more obstacles to overcome, both on and off the field.
He also will no longer be able to rely on the Puig-as-Dodgers-savior narrative that became ubiquitous in 2013. And yes, on occasion, failure won't be merely a possibility; it will happen.
But just as there's no denying that Puig may be a little too exuberant at times—not to mention, a little too turbulent—there's also no denying that he is an immense talent.
It's only fitting that a rising star who calls Hollywood his home is getting his very own sequel. In theatres, starting Saturday.
To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11