Is There Anybody Left in Los Angeles Whom Yasiel Puig Hasn't Alienated?

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistDecember 10, 2015

Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig watches batting practice before Game 2 of baseball's National League Division Series against the New York Mets, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

NASHVILLE — While the Los Angeles Dodgers scramble to address life after Zack Greinke, there remains the very real question of whether they can continue to live with Yasiel Puig.

As the Dodgers deal with the possible disintegration of their Aroldis Chapman trade with Cincinnati because of bombshell domestic abuse allegations, MLB already is conducting a parallel domestic abuse investigation into a bar fight involving Puig.

Two years after he rocked the baseball world and saved the Dodgers' season upon his shooting-star arrival, the flamboyant Cuban outfielder now generates more controversy than homers, more antipathy than offense.

Tucked somewhere among the salacious stories of Greinke tossing Puig's suitcase off the bus and onto a street in Chicago, ace Clayton Kershaw allegedly advising the Dodgers front office this winter to dump the outfielder and third baseman Justin Turner almost getting into a fight with Puig last spring looms one of the biggest questions facing the Dodgers for 2016:

Is the relationship between Puig and his teammates inside the Dodgers' clubhouse irreparably broken?

"I think for the most part, no," Dodgers All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez told Bleacher Report during a telephone conversation this week. "I'm still a guy who believes in Yasiel's heart and where he wants to go and where he wants to be.

"When I talk to him heart to heart, he explains to me that he wants to be the best he can be. Growing up, sometimes it takes awhile to break bad habits."

Others believe it is time the Dodgers break their bad habit of employing Puig.

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

"He is the worst person I've ever seen in this game," one ex-Dodger who believes Puig is beyond redemption said flatly. "Ever."

It is the question that persists, and is asked with more and more frequency as the hurricane that is Puig wreaks ever more damage: Can the frayed relationships between Puig and his teammates be salvaged in Los Angeles?

"I think they definitely can," Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis told Bleacher Report this week in another telephone conversation. "I think there has to be give-and-take on both sides.

"As his teammates, we have to do a better job of encouraging him and reaching out to him. I know I do. And from Yasiel's side, he has to continue to grow and to mature and to be accountable and understand that not all criticism is negative.

"I think trust has to be established, and maybe we missed that early."

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Piled onto three years' worth of tardiness, rifts with teammates and other assorted drama-queen moments come two more troublesome incidents this winter.

The first arrived when former MLB outfielder Andy Van Slyke, father of current Dodgers outfielder Scott Van Slyke, essentially told a St. Louis radio station that ace Clayton Kershaw had approached Dodgers management and declared that "the first thing you need to do is get rid of Puig."

Shortly after that, TMZ Sports reported that Puig was involved in an altercation in a Miami-area bar that started when he reportedly pushed his sister, got physical with employees at the bar who ran over to break it up and then allegedly sucker-punched a bouncer.

Richard Vogel/Associated Press

Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' president of baseball operations, flatly denied the Kershaw story at a news conference to announce the hiring of new manager Dave Roberts earlier this month.

Ellis, Kershaw's best friend on the team and frequent carpool partner to Dodger Stadium during the season, doubts the veracity of Van Slyke's story.

"If that happened, Clayton's kept that even from me," Ellis said. "And Clayton and I tell each other everything.

"I've never heard Clayton say, 'I'm going to talk to Stan Kasten' or 'I'm going to talk to Andrew Friedman.' Clayton respects the chain of command. And he's pretty focused.

"As a guy who's closer to him than to anybody else on the team, I've never heard that."

Meanwhile, the man who is closest to Puig on the team reached out to him after the Miami incident last month to seek the truth among the sensational reports.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

"I told him to stay away from bars," Gonzalez said. "I told him, 'If you want to drink, do it at home.' I told him in this day and age of camera phones, nightclubs are not a place he should be drinking in."

It is not the first bit of advice that Gonzalez, 33 and entering his 13th big league season in 2016, has dispensed to Puig, 25, since his heady debut in 2013 when he hit .319/.391/.534 with 19 homers and 42 RBI in 104 games.

Gonzalez separates the bar incident with Puig from some of the other things that have happened because "it's not a team issue." In other words, it was an out-of-season, personal incident that happened on Puig's time, not on the Dodgers' watch, which does not affect anybody else.

Of course, it will affect the Dodgers if Puig is suspended.

Despite the frequent counseling of Gonzalez, Puig remains so rough around the edges that there doesn't appear to be enough sandpaper in Los Angeles to smooth him out.

What was a regular habit of late arrivals peaked when he was late to Dodger Stadium on Opening Day 2014 and subsequently benched by then-manager Don Mattingly.

He showed up to spring training overweight in 2014, has had his work ethic questioned in batting practice and in the weight room, has run into outs with maddening frequency on the bases and often has come up coincidentally aching after striking out.

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

"Shoulder yesterday, back today, so I'm not sure if they're going to get him tests or get him to the MRI Monday or a bone scan on Tuesday, maybe," Mattingly memorably said during the Dodgers' season-opening series in Australia in 2014, sarcasm thick as pine tar. "I'm not quite sure what we'll do. We may not do anything. I'm not sure."

Real hamstring injuries limited him to 79 games last summer, a season in which he never could achieve full stride. He hit a career-low .255/.322/.436 with 11 homers and 38 RBI.

Because he is signed to a club-friendly seven-year, $42 million deal through 2018 and because they still go dreamy at the memory of that debut rookie season, the Dodgers say they never have seriously entertained trading him. They feel the benefit of slicing the daily drama out of their clubhouse could be quickly eclipsed if he recaptures his superstar lightning in another uniform.

But having torpedoed his own reputation through repeated, petulant behavior, it's not as if his trade market is robust, anyway. Across the industry, he is viewed as damaged goods with burdensome baggage. And the Dodgers don't sell low.

"That's a lot of money for a huge risk," one former general manager told B/R. "There's such a huge downside. He's a problem. He's a distraction. He's selfish. He's not going to play if he doesn't feel like it. He's got his money.

"You're taking on a whole series of problems."

Others wonder if the decline in his game can be reversed.

"He's a completely different athlete than he was three or four years ago, and it's not even close," another veteran scout said. "He doesn't have the bat speed or pitch recognition. Everything he does is a notch or two down from where it was. All of the injuries. We've all seen it.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 6: Yasiel Puig #66 of the Los Angeles Dodgers walks back to the dugout after striking out during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on August 6, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Dodgers won 10-8
Hunter Martin/Getty Images

"He doesn't have the same athleticism he had before. I'm watching guys throwing 90 throw the fastball right by him. When he first got here, guys were afraid to throw him fastballs for a strike."

Puig is said to be working out feverishly near his home in South Florida this offseason at the same facility in which Miguel Cabrera works out. Gonzalez believes this because he hasn't only heard it from Puig, but also from Colorado outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, who also is a frequent visitor to the same gym.

Always, the thing with Puig, as with most players who habitually rub teammates the wrong way, is this: When he's hitting and playing as he did in 2013, his grating behavior at least is tolerable. When he isn't, it isn't. It moves from the charming Manny Being Manny school to Get This Guy out of Here.

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

The Greinke Suitcase incident, first chronicled in author Molly Knight's book published last summer entitled The Best Team Money Can Buy, occurred in mid-September 2014 during a 10-day trip to San Francisco, Colorado and Chicago.

The Dodgers had scheduled their traditional rookie "hazing"—dressing the first-year players up in ridiculous-looking outfits—for the trip from Colorado to Chicago, but the Rockies whipped the Dodgers, 16-2, in the series finale there, and by the time they landed in Chicago, patience among some players had grown thin.

On the bus trip from the airport into the city, some veterans ordered the bus stopped and the rookies to disembark and fetch pizza from a shop off the street. Gonzalez, pitcher Jamey Wright and another veteran or two accompanied the rookies into the pizza joint and, when the wait became longer than expected, some veterans on the bus became angry and wanted the bus to continue along.

Puig was outside of the bus looking for his luggage in the holding bay underneath and, after Puig ignored several requests to close the bay door, Greinke hopped off the bus, grabbed Puig's suitcase and tossed it onto Michigan Avenue. According to the book, Puig went at Greinke and was restrained by veteran reliever J.P. Howell.

Illustrating the general mood of impatience at the time, Kershaw, Ellis and veteran pitcher Dan Haren called for an Uber from the bus, according to the catcher, and hopped off the bus and went straight back to the team hotel.

"Right when we got to the hotel, my phone exploded with text messages," Ellis told B/R. "I've heard a lot of different versions of that story. All of them are pretty consistent."

Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

So are the stories from last spring, when infielder Justin Turner and Puig tangled during spring training and had to be separated.

"Neither one of them was correct," Gonzalez said. "It shouldn't have escalated to that extent. There was some ill will from a couple of instances before."

The two moved past that incident, according to Gonzalez, who likened it, as players often do in these kinds of instances, to a couple of family members fighting.

The frequent discord and hostilities within the Dodgers' clubhouse involving Puig no longer are a private matter, though, which is why the path Friedman and Co. elect to take has become one of the game's biggest stories and, surely, most highly rated soap opera.

With his escape route fast approaching last season via the opt-out clause in his contract, some close to the Dodgers said Greinke would not even consider returning to the club unless he received a guarantee that Puig would be dispatched elsewhere.

But given the astounding contract Arizona awarded him, $206.5 million over six seasons, a record annual average value of $34.42 million, it is easy to believe that leaving Puig behind was just a small but happy byproduct of Greinke's decision to bolt Los Angeles.

Ellis, who has spoken with Greinke since the deal, said it was not a factor.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

"It couldn't be further from the truth, Zack wanting to leave because of Yasiel," Ellis said. "One thing Zack really respects and loves is talent. When Yasiel is healthy, Zack loves watching him play.

"Zack would have loved to stay in L.A. I talked to him about it. But Arizona came in at the 11th hour and offered so much more than the rest of the industry. And Zack really loves [the talent on] that team."

Said Gonzalez: "Obviously Zack is an incredible pitcher and you definitely don't want to lose him. But I can't blame him for going someplace to get that kind of money and to be able to live in the same house year-round and not have to move during spring training."

While Greinke spent a day with his wife earlier this week shopping for a house in the Phoenix area, the Dodgers spent the week here shopping to fix a suddenly depleted roster and picking up the pieces of the Chapman trade that had to be put on hold when the domestic abuse story broke several hours after the Dodgers and Reds reportedly had come to a deal.

John Minchillo/Associated Press

Visions of Chapman and Puig together in the same clubhouse—the Dodgers would have the market cornered on two of MLB's three open domestic abuse investigations, missing only shortstop Jose Reyes—led to more chatter this week in Nashville. And plenty of sympathy for the potential mess new manager Dave Roberts might be walking into.

"I guarantee you they're trying to get rid of him," one source with a rival club said of Puig. "There's no question he's a problem. In my mind, he's a problem anywhere he goes.

"He's Hanley Ramirez: He's a cancer on a ballclub."

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

Mattingly, who now is managing the Miami Marlins, and former Los Angeles batting coach Mark McGwire, now bench coach for San Diego, both could barely stomach Puig by the time they left the organization, sources with knowledge of the Dodgers say. Mattingly politely declined comment this week in Nashville, saying he prefers to look forward with the Marlins, not backward to his bygone Dodgers days.

Like many around the Dodgers, Gonzalez points out that Puig is still only 25 and that "everything that's been thrown at him since he was 21 is a lot more than a lot of people can handle. A lot of people forget that a lot of prospects in the organization haven't even made it to the majors yet and they're older than Puig."

Ellis agrees.

"This goes all the way back to when our manager (Mattingly) was about to be fired and our season was about to go down the drain and Yasiel saved us," the catcher said, speaking of that 2013 season when the Dodgers, 23-32 and 8.5 games back in the NL West on June 2, went 69-38 the rest of the way after Puig joined them on June 3. L.A. won the NL West with the rookie sensation carrying them during June, July and August, hitting .349 with 13 homers and 31 RBI during those three months.

"Think about what a rookie goes through, what Joc Pederson went through this year. Yasiel got past all of that, and it's hard to go back and start from scratch because he went from zero to 100 faster than anybody I ever saw.

"In a month, he became a superstar quicker than anybody I've ever seen."

As he did, while the Dodgers began to employ extra security following an ESPN The Magazine story detailing, among other things, an extortion threat to Puig following his escape from Cuba, his immaturity and emotional nature were revealed on enough occasions that many teammates developed an instant disdain for him.

Two Januaries ago, in another offseason Florida incident, he was arrested for driving 110 mph with his mother and two others in the car.

More than anyone else in the clubhouse, Gonzalez has tried to work with him as a mentor and teacher, in addition to being a teammate.

"Adrian has more insight into him than anybody," Ellis said. "Adrian has done a great job. I give Adrian a ton of credit for showing him unconditional love and support. Adrian, you can see he's the one guy who can correct and be stern with Yasiel and not get the reaction someone else gets.

PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 09:  Yasiel Puig #66 and Adrian Gonzalez #23 of the Los Angeles Dodgers in action against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the game at PNC Park on August 9, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

"I think we all can take lessons from that, myself included. And there's the other side, too: Yasiel needs to show he's able to grow."

After three years in the majors, the clock is ticking quickly.

"Obviously, the times he's late to the clubhouse or shows up at the last minute, then certain guys—and I'll say myself included—are going to [be bothered]," said Gonzalez, who continued to talk about how, in our culture, being on time or early is viewed as one of the most important traits a player can have, and if he doesn't, then that player often gets tagged as a man who "doesn't want to win."

Puig does want to win, Gonzalez said, but hasn't been able to "wrap his mind" around the punctuality part of things. Just as when Gonzalez played winter ball in Mexico, Gonzalez said, he could not get used to some of the customs there.

"Obviously the issues are people call him out on things and he doesn't like to be called out, so there's friction," Gonzalez said. "In his heart, he wants to win and he wants to be a great teammate. That's all there.

"But his first reaction when he's criticized is to lash back. So even after the fact, he knows it was for his own good, but he's already created a negative mentality where the other person is concerned."

With each incident, such as the bar fight in Miami, two things happen: You hope maybe this is the moment Puig finally grows up and begins to settle in. And you wonder whether that moment will arrive before the repeated, self-inflicted wounds finally torpedo what once had the makings of a brilliant career.

So here we are again, wondering what's next: Theoretically healthy and with something to prove, will Puig charge back in 2016 toward his second All-Star Game? Will MLB's investigation lead to a suspension? Or will the Dodgers pull the trigger on a deal?

The underlying organizational fear in that last scenario, of course, is that Puig will recapture his 2013 highlight-reel self in another city for the low, low price of the $19.5 million he is owed over the next three seasons.

Regarding Kershaw supposedly wanting him gone, Gonzalez said that he got a different vibe when he spoke with club executives this offseason.

Oct 13, 2015; New York City, NY, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig (66) in the dugout prior to game four of the NLDS against the New York Mets at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

"They talked with Clayton and the consensus was that Clayton does agree that a good and healthy Puig being on the team doing everything right is better for our team than what we would get in trade," Gonzalez said.

"We all know he can be a superstar. If all of a sudden he does a 180 and becomes the person everybody wants him to be, shows up on time, is a good teammate to everybody and produces, a year from now, everyone is going to say this is the best trade nobody made."

As for the more immediate future, Kershaw and Puig next week will become teammates again on a four-day MLB goodwill tour of Cuba led by Hall of Famers Joe Torre and Dave Winfield.

"That was encouraging for me," said Roberts, the new manager, who has not yet met Puig. "You hear things from the other side."

You hear a lot, from all sides.

And increasingly, more and more of it is damning.

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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