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Has Yasiel Puig Become Expendable Piece of Los Angeles Dodgers' Playoff Puzzle?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 16, 2015

Aug 27, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig (66) leaves the game with manager Don Mattingly (right) in the ninth inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

There was a time when Yasiel Puig was the hot topic du jour on a seemingly, um, jourly basis. That went double during October, a month when Puig's every action was best observed through a microscope. And the more subatomic, the better.

But this year? Not as much. And the way things are looking now, it's time to wonder if we'll even be discussing Puig at all come the postseason.

Oh, don't worry. The Los Angeles Dodgers will be there. They've caught fire and opened up a big lead in the NL West over the defending world champion San Francisco Giants. With less than 20 games to go before the end of the regular season, the Dodgers can plan on a third straight NL West title and begin pondering their postseason roster.

To this end, what to do with Puig could be their most difficult decision.

The star 24-year-old right fielder has had trouble staying on the field in 2015, participating in only 77 games due to assorted injuries. The latest of those is a right hamstring strain that has kept him out of action since Aug. 27, and which isn't close to being 100 percent healed.

Ben Margot/Associated Press
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"We've got about a month and Yas has been out a few days, a week, maybe," Dodgers skipper Don Mattingly said earlier this month, via Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times. "If it is a month, we're pretty much right at the end of the year."

This is to say Puig may not be healthy until the postseason arrives. At that point, it'll have been over a month since his last major league game, leaving the Dodgers little to go off of regarding whether he's worthy of a spot on their postseason roster.

It's no wonder that Mattingly's uncertainty about the situation comes across even in print: "I think we'd have to see a little bit. We just cross those bridges as we get there. I guess it would depend on what he's able to do at that point."

Of course, it is possible the Dodgers' decision will turn out to be an easy one. If Puig makes it obvious that he's not healthy yet, putting him on the postseason roster anyway would be folly. Those roster spots are too precious to waste on guys who can't give it their all.

But then again, what to do with Puig and the postseason roster won't necessarily be a no-brainer, even if he does show the Dodgers he's healthy. Looking healed in drills isn't the same as being 100 percent in games, after all.

And then there's the possibility that the Dodgers could conclude that they don't really need Puig anyway.

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

The notion of Puig being an expendable part of the Dodgers' plans would have been absurd in either of the last two seasons. In notching a .925 OPS with 19 homers, he was arguably their best position player in 2013. Even as his numbers fell to an .863 OPS and 16 homers, you could still make the same argument last year. Puig was good. Really good.

But 2015 has brought a Wild Horse of a different color. When he hasn't been injured, Puig has registered an OPS of just .764 with 11 homers and put up a 1.1 WAR, which puts him well short of the ranks of the Dodgers' best players. Rather than great, he's been merely solid.

That's made it a wee bit easier for the Dodgers to make do without him. To their credit, they've done precisely that.

With Puig on the field, the Dodgers have gone a solid 42-35. Without Puig on the field, however, they've done a bit better at 41-26. Part of the reason for this is that the Dodgers offense hasn't skipped a beat without Puig in the lineup. 

You can take it from the slash lines, which show no notable difference in the Dodgers' offensive production if Puig's contributions were erased entirely:

  • Dodgers with Puig: .253/.329/.418
  • Dodgers minus Puig: .252/.329/.416

Now, this could be read as the latest entry in the "Look How Overrated Yasiel Puig Is!" journal. But don't do that. That's a bad reading. Talk of Puig being overrated is in itself overrated.

Rather, this is more so a compliment to the depth the Dodgers have enjoyed this season. And where they've been deepest just so happens to be the outfield. Despite Puig's extended absences, the Dodgers outfield has still managed to be one of the most productive in baseball.

Joc Pederson and Andre Ethier are mainly to thank for that, and Carl Crawford has also been solid when his own shaky health has allowed him to play. Elsewhere, role players like Kike Hernandez, Scott Van Slyke, Alex Guerrero and, most recently, Justin Ruggiano have also lent a hand.

And with the postseason fast approaching, it's certainly not hard to imagine the Dodgers being willing to move forward with a combination of these players, rather than shoehorn Puig into the mix.

Dodgers' Projected Postseason Outfield
PlayerSpanOPS
Carl CrawfordLast 29 Games.819
Joc PedersonLast 12 Games.835
Andre EthierLast 35 Games.927
Baseball-Reference.com

Because Crawford, Pederson and Ethier have been hitting well recently, they look like a solid starting trio. In light of their track records as lefty killers, Van Slyke and Ruggiano could be used as right-handed platoon partners for Crawford and Ethier. If he recovers well enough from his own hamstring strain, Hernandez would be the do-it-all utility guy and another right-handed bat to use in a pinch.

Of course, going with a crew like this would put pressure on Mattingly to push the right buttons in October. But as J.P. Hoornstra of the Los Angeles Daily News pointed out, Mattingly has been forced to do quite a bit of mixing and matching this month. He's been getting his platoon practice, and the club's .761 OPS this month says it's working.

Bottom line: The Dodgers haven't needed Puig's presence to enjoy a productive outfield in 2015, and the pieces are there for them if they want to try to continue that trend into October.

...Or, they could just decide to roll the dice on a healthy (or healthy enough) Puig anyway. And as much as all of the above wouldn't be the worst idea, this, too, wouldn't be the worst idea.

Sep 5, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder Carl Crawford (3) hits an RBI double during the fourth inning against the San Diego Padres at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Though Puig hasn't been himself this year, he's at least been better than average. That's reflected best in how his .764 OPS translates to a safely above-average 110 OPS+. That's notably better than Crawford's 96 OPS+. And given that Crawford is also currently banged up after struggling with injuries for much of the year, one could argue for the Dodgers holding right field for Puig and projecting Ethier to start over Crawford in left field.

There's also the notion that Puig is the best emergency center field option the Dodgers have, a rather important distinction given what's known about Pederson. If he happens to go into another deep slump in October, the Dodgers would be happy they have Puig's athleticism to plug into center field.

Lastly, there's the notion that rolling the dice on Puig could result in a huge payout. He can be frustratingly inconsistent, but he's also shown at times in 2015—including right before his latest injury—that he can be an absolute terror when he finds his rhythm at the plate. If he were to do so in October, he could put the entire Dodgers offense on his back.

So, while the Dodgers theoretically could tackle the postseason without Puig, even if he shows them he's good to go, it's a lot harder to say with any conviction that they should.

Which, if nothing else, is to say it'll be interesting to see what the Dodgers do. The signs say Puig's recovery is going to leave them with a tough decision to make: the allure of Puig's talent, or the depth that's allowed them to survive just fine without it?

Like Mattingly said, the Dodgers will cross this bridge when they get to it. But for now, it doesn't hurt to send along the appropriate message.

Good luck with that.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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