It is fair to say that Yasiel Puig had back to back good seasons in 2017 and 2018. His defense, his antics and more recently, his bat, had put the entertaining right fielder atop the lists of fan favorites but also amongst some of the best players in baseball statistically. Now that the tongue-wagging outfielder is gone, the Dodgers will need to replace Puig and his numbers and doing that may not be so easy.
Before we get into the stats and what will probably end up being a tribute to Puig, we should address the obvious: Bryce Harper could very well be a Dodger, and soon. Puig’s trade was what fans recognized as the big step to making the mega-deal a reality and as soon as the trade was made official, social media was sent into a frenzy of “Bryce Harper will be a Dodger.”
Slow down. The trade was the first step to that happening, yes. The Dodgers cleared space both financially as well as on the diamond but, with Harper’s asking price so high, a move for the best player on the free agent market is not as simple as it seems.
The Dodgers traded away roughly $20 million in 2019 payroll. Matt Kemp was the most expensive of the bunch and his contract was washed with that of Homer Bailey’s. The Dodgers were essentially left trading away Puig, Alex Wood and Kyle Farmer from a financial standpoint with the contract canceling that happened between the two expensive players.
The $20 million coming off the books brought the Dodgers approximately $30 million below the luxury tax threshold which should be enough distance to sign AJ Pollock, Craig Kimbrel or Zach Britton. But, to sign Harper, that is not enough space should the Dodgers want to stay under the $206 million threshold. This does, however, open up the space to trade for both Corey Kluber and JT Realmuto, moves that the Dodgers can use newly acquired prospects, Jeter Downs and Josiah Gray to make something happen.
Anyway, back to Puig.
Puig was certainly a source of joy for his fans and, contrary to some articles out there right now, his teammates really loved him. As much as he will be missed off the field, I cannot quantify a bat lick or a tussle with Madison Bumgarner. It is impossible to put a number on the Turner Ward cheek kisses or the moments between Puig and Hyun-Jin Ryu. As much as I want to put numbers and values on those, I simply cannot. Therefore, we can talk about what we can quantify: Puig’s constantly unrewarded defense and his bat that was quietly as good as Francisco Lindor’s in 2017. These are the aspects of Puig’s game that the Dodgers were foolish to lose should they not be able to replace them.
I want to start where Puig’s success was always obvious: his defense. The 28-year old outfielder was one of the most prolific right fielders in the game since 2013. It seemed like his rambunctious demeanor actually aided him in making every play an all-out effort. Puig put the ball before his body, injuring himself on walls in San Francisco, hurting his elbow in Los Angeles and constantly coming up slow from plays he made for his pitchers. His energy made him the fielder he was.
That effort translated to the stats. In 2018, Puig was one of the best defensive right fielders in baseball particularly on balls hit in his zone. On the season, he finished sixth among major league right fielders in revised zone rating and eleventh in defensive runs saved.
Surprisingly, Puig’s arm actually cost the team runs in 2018 but for argument’s sake, his cannon is one in a million.
This is where Puig is irreplaceable. Sure, AJ Pollock is an unbelievable defender but it should go without saying that his defense is only fantastic when he is healthy. The other issue with Pollock? He is not a right fielder.
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If we want to compare apples to apples, Bryce Harper is a horrific defender but with a reason. Harper’s struggles are due, at least in some part, to some terrible initial positioning. Harper started an average of 295 feet away from home plate before a play. The Nationals, an analytically weak team, were 22nd in the majors in overall defensive shifting last year whereas the Dodgers are 12th. However, Harper finished 2018 with a -26 DRS (30 points below Puig) and fixing that with some savvy shifting in LA might not bring it up to zero but it may improve nonetheless.
Puig’s defense will still be a tough hole to fill. Bryce Harper nor Alex Verdugo will make up the difference completely nor will either of them play every ball like it is the last out of the World Series.
That brings me to the other side of the ball: his offense. Over the last six seasons, I think it is fair to call Puig’s offensive output a journey. If we are encapsulating base running in this conversation, Puig’s offense got so frustrating he was demoted for it in 2016, a season where Puig was actually close to being traded. Puig’s agent said in an interview with Ken Rosenthal that, “they (the Dodgers) are making every effort to trade him.”
But after rain, there is a rainbow and there sure was one for Puig. In 2017, he slashed .263/.346/.487 with career highs in home runs (28), RBI’s (74) and stolen bases (15). He came away from 2017 with a 117 wRC+, tied with Cleveland’s superstar, Francisco Lindor. His production in 2017 set a benchmark for success and the question became sustainability. Would Puig be able to do this again? Yes, he sure would.
In 2018, along with his solid defense, Puig slashed .267/.327/.494 with an improved 123 wRC+. His bat was respectable and his attitude shifted to a team leader of sorts.
The numbers with the bat are replaceable if we are being completely honest. Perhaps the pitcher-rattling antics are hard to come by but the sheer numerical values that come with Puig are not like his defense. If the Dodgers get Bryce Harper it is a major improvement over Puig.
At the end of the day, the Dodgers traded what I did not write about. They traded heart and hustle and a guy that cared deeply for his teammates. His bat flips, his arm and tongue will forever be cemented in Dodgers lore and for good reasons, none bad. While those are hard to replace, his numbers would indicate that there are players out there that can do the job. The Dodgers lost a presence in this trade. If we’re being honest, that is what they need to replace.