The Best Landing Spots for Yasiel Puig to Become an MLB Star Again

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 18, 2019

Cleveland Indians' Yasiel Puig watches his ball after hitting a game-winning RBI-single in the 10th inning in a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in Cleveland. The Indians won 2-1 in ten innings. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

There may be no greater enigma on Major League Baseball's 2019-20 offseason market than Yasiel Puig.

After six years with the Los Angeles Dodgers between 2013 and 2018 and one split between the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians in 2019, the 28-year-old right fielder is a free agent for the first time. Based on his name value and combination of above-average power, speed and arm strength, he ought to be a high-value target.

In actuality, Puig is, at best, the sixth-most-desirable position player available after Anthony Rendon, Josh Donaldson, Yasmani Grandal, Nicholas Castellanos and Marcell Ozuna. Some publications—namely MLB Trade Rumors, which ranks him 37th overall—think even less of him as a free agent.

It doesn't help Puig's case that he wasn't very good in 2019.

Though he hit 24 home runs, his .785 OPS marked one of his worst offensive seasons, and his defensive metrics were basically average. Some teams might see those numbers and all his baggage—i.e. his short temper and general tendency to attract negative attention—and conclude he isn't worth the risk even at a discount.

Given all this, Puig is more of a reclamation project than a star. He's likely only in the market for a one-year deal, and it'll have to come from a team with the goods to breathe life back into his stardom.

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Hence the big question: Which teams match that description?

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 27: Yasiel Puig #66 of the Cleveland Indians warms up against the Washington Nationals during the first inning at Nationals Park on September 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Even if Puig's glory days of 2013 and 2014 are firmly in the past, any team that takes a chance on him would surely be happy if he turned the clock back just to 2017 and 2018. That version of Puig was both a well-above-average hitter (.827 OPS and 51 home runs) and defender (24 defensive runs saved).

Though he didn't quite recapture all his former talent, Puig showed flashes of his former self after jumping from the Reds to the Indians at the 2019 trade deadline. He only hit two homers in 49 games, but he posted a solid .297 average and .377 on-base percentage.

After playing on nothing but winners in his Dodgers years, perhaps Puig was energized by landing in the thick of a pennant race when he was traded to the Indians. Or perhaps the credit should go to Terry Francona, who Puig endorsed as "the best manager I've ever been around."

It might also have helped that, just like during his time as a Dodger, Puig didn't have to be the guy with the Indians. He seemed to be pressing a bit when he had to help anchor a weak lineup in Cincinnati. Once he was alongside Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Carlos Santana and fellow newcomer Franmil Reyes in Cleveland, his walk rate jumping from 5.7 to 10.1 percent suggests he was able to relax a little.

So beyond one that simply needs a right fielder, the ideal team for Puig is also one that has a chance to contend in 2020 with incumbent offensive standouts already in place and a manager who can get through to him.

To these ends, the best place for Puig is where he was last: Cleveland.

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 21: Oscar Mercado #35 is congratulated by Yasiel Puig #66 of the Cleveland Indians as Manager Terry Francona #77 looks on after hitting a two run home run against the Philadelphia Phillies during the second inning at Progressive
David Maxwell/Getty Images

Francona and the aforementioned lineup anchors are still there, after all, and the Indians would surely be better off with Puig in right field than they would be with Reyes. Based on the latter's defensive metrics, designated hitter is clearly the best place for him.

The Indians would also seem to have room in their payroll for Puig. Even if they re-signed him for, say, $10 million over one year, their 2020 commitments would still be well short of their final 2019 expenses.

If not the Indians, there's a prime fit for Puig elsewhere in the American League Central with the Chicago White Sox. 

Puig would be an instant upgrade for a right field spot that produced an MLB-low minus-1.8 WAR in 2019. He could also be comfortable sharing a lineup with Tim Anderson, Eloy Jimenez and fellow Cuba natives Yoan Moncada and Jose Abreu. And while manager Rick Renteria doesn't have Francona's pedigree, the White Sox rave about the culture he's established over the last three seasons.

As far as getting out of rebuilding and into contending, the White Sox wouldn't have to stop at signing Puig. Were they also to fill the empty space in their long-term books with a big-ticket free agent or two, an improvement on their 72-89 record from 2019 would be all but guaranteed.

The Texas Rangers might also see Puig as a key puzzle piece for the next step in their own rebuild. He would be a step up from Nomar Mazara in right field and a good right-handed complement for left-handed sluggers Joey Gallo, Shin-Soo Choo and Willie Calhoun.

For his part, manager Chris Woodward is short on experience, but the Rangers love how he worked leading the team to a 78-84 record in 2019. Not unlike the White Sox, the Rangers also have the financial flexibility for a massive splurge in free agency.

Following a 90-loss 2019, the Los Angeles Angels are another AL West club that has the spending money to buy its way into contention. They certainly need starting pitching first and foremost, but they might like the idea of Puig filling Kole Calhoun's vacated shoes in right field.

Likewise, the Angels might enjoy the notion of Puig sharing a lineup with Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Justin Upton while playing under Joe Maddon, who's a three-time Manager of the Year with a longstanding reputation as a players' manager.

Meanwhile, in the National League, there's a potential home for Puig with the two-time defending NL East champion Atlanta Braves, who have a good deal of payroll space that needs filling.

Depending on what happens with expendable center fielder Ender Inciarte, Puig would either be an everyday right fielder or part of a platoon with Nick Markakis in Atlanta. In either case, he would bolster a lineup that's already led by Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr. He might also respond to Brian Snitker, who was the NL Manager of the Year for 2018.

The National League otherwise consists largely of imperfect fits for Puig, including teams with tight finances (San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals) and less-than-friendly histories with Puig (Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants). There are also a couple of those in the American League, such as the Tampa Bay Rays (always on a budget) and Boston Red Sox (only have room for Puig if they first trade Mookie Betts).

Those clubs are, however, at least possibilities for Puig. Though he probably imagined going into free agency with more clout, he ultimately shouldn't have to beg for work.

             

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference. Payroll data courtesy of Roster Resource.