A successful baseball season usually consists of a team having a lot more players meeting or exceeding expectations than those who fall short. In most cases, at least one or two of those players will perform way above and beyond what anyone could have imagined. For the 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers, that was Yasiel Puig.
After signing a seven-year, $42 million free-agent deal in June 2012 just a few months after defecting from Cuba, Puig didn't exactly come out of nowhere last season. But, with only 23 minor league games played between the Dodgers' Arizona rookie-level team and High-A Rancho Cucamonga, it would've been difficult to find many people who thought he would make much of an impact at all in his first full season as a pro.
That sentiment likely changed, however, after a monster spring training performance (30-for-58, 3 HR, 5 2B, 2 3B, 11 RBI, 4 SB) when he nearly forced himself onto the Opening Day roster. After posting a .982 OPS with eight homers and 13 stolen bases in 40 Double-A games to start the season, he was called up to the majors in early June.
If there were any questions about whether Puig, who struck out 11 times without drawing a walk in the spring, would be able to hit major league pitching, they were answered immediately.
It wasn't until his 35th big league game that his average finally dipped below .400 and, aside from the NLCS when St. Louis Cardinals pitching held him in check for the most part (5-for-22, 3B, BB, 10 K), he never really showed any signs of struggling to hit big league pitching. Puig finished his rookie year with a .925 OPS, 19 homers, 21 doubles and 11 stolen bases in 104 games. He was also second in NL Rookie of the Year voting and 15th in MVP voting.
With Puig on the big league roster, the Dodgers went 69-38 to finish the regular season. Several factors coincided with the team's impressive run, but none had a bigger impact than Puig's arrival.
The result is that the 23-year-old will enter his second big league season with a mountain of expectations. And what of the perception that his style of play and attitude on the field is at times a big concern? Puig had this to say in an interview with Tim Keown of ESPN The Magazine:
The issue of on-field behavior strikes a nerve. "I will make changes to cater to the critics," he says, "but I have to keep my style and flair. And if they still get offended"—with this he rolls his eyes and shakes his head in mock surrender—"then I can only say, 'Hallelujah!'"
Will he continue to put up superstar numbers despite teams having much more in-depth scouting reports on him? Or will he come back down to earth?
By "come back down to earth," I mean that flaws in his offensive game will be exposed, and he'll be prone to extended slumps as he tries to make the proper adjustments to pitchers who have attacked his weaknesses. There would still be plenty of highly productive weeks or even months. But over a 162-game season, there would be extreme peaks and valleys as opposed to the four months of excellence he produced in 2013.
While that doesn't mean Puig will be a mediocre player or even an average regular, the reality is that it's extremely difficult to do what he did over the course of a full season. Only a small percentage of big league hitters can be counted on for that type of production year in and year out.
And we certainly can't rule Puig out from being in that group. He's obviously capable of doing it over a majority of the season, though the lack of information available on him had to work to his advantage, and it wouldn't be a surprise if teams have a plan of attack for the right-handed hitting slugger based on any weaknesses that might have been revealed in 2013.
If he's the type of player who can put up just very good numbers that are All-Star worthy—think .800 OPS, 25 HR, 30 2B and 15 SB to go along with a high strikeout total—as opposed to the MVP-caliber numbers he was on pace for last year, are the Dodgers in for a letdown as they head into the 2014 season with World Series aspirations?
As good as its projected 25-man roster is on paper, this is not a team without concerns. Puig's arrival last June catapulted a team that appeared dead in the water at 23-32.
The manager and the general manager were on the hot seat. Several key players, including Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez (pictured), were dealing with injuries. The lack of depth in the upper minors had been exposed. Adrian Gonzalez, as good of an all-around player as he still is, hasn't been the type of hitter who can carry a team on his back for weeks at a time as he did with the San Diego Padres a few years back.
Ramirez's return to health was a huge part of the Dodgers' emergence, as was Andre Ethier's return to form after an awful start to the year. Moving Kenley Jansen into the closer role proved to be an integral move. The acquisition of Ricky Nolasco certainly helped.
But without Puig, the Dodgers may have never recovered, and there's a good chance they'd have a new manager and general manager running the show right now.
So what can go wrong in 2014? Every team in the majors has question marks. They all can be good if a certain number of factors occur. A team like the Astros or Marlins would need too many stars to align to compete for a playoff spot. But it could happen. The teams with the best chance just have a lot fewer "what ifs."
For the Dodgers to not have to count on Puig carrying the team on his back once again, they'll need at least a good percentage of the following things to happen:
1) Hanley Ramirez stays healthy.
2) Matt Kemp returns to full health.
3) Juan Uribe, who was re-signed to a two-year deal after a solid 2014 season, won't revert to his 2011-2012 form (.552 OPS).
4) Cuban second baseman Alexander Guerrero, who signed a four-year, $28 million deal this offseason, won't be a bust.
5) Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke avoid the disabled list.
6) Dan Haren pitches like he did in the second half of last season (3.52 ERA) and not the first half (5.61 ERA).
7) Chad Billingsley returns from Tommy John surgery in the second half and gives the rotation a shot in the arm down the stretch.
8) Josh Beckett returns to health and gives the Dodgers a solid No. 5 starter in their rotation early in the season.
That's a pretty extensive list, especially for a team that is widely regarded as one of the top World Series contenders. If Puig's production does "come back down to earth," the Dodgers better be able to check off at least five or six of these things if they're going to avoid becoming one of the most disappointing teams in baseball in 2014.