Dodgers: Remembering this Decade’s Most Exciting Dodger
A relative unknown from Cuba. A generational talent, too crazy for his own good. A playoff hero. A fan favorite. A Cincinnati Red.
We may never again get to see Puig lackadaisically track down a lazy fly ball to right at Chavez Ravine while donning Dodger blue. We may never again get to see him lick his bat as a Dodger, or ascend up the dugout steps for a curtain call as a Dodger, or wag his finger or his tongue as a Dodger.
After a career filled with numerous hills and valleys, the Los Angeles Dodgers dealt Yasiel Puig (along with Alex Wood, Matt Kemp, and Kyle Farmer) to the Cincinnati Reds for prospects in what ultimately was the most heartbreaking salary dump since the last Matt Kemp trade.
Puig has been one of the most polarizing figures to the play the game since his signing, so when writing this article I wanted to make sure I covered not just the good, but also the bad because part of what made Puig so great was his story, which was one worthy of Hollywood.
Over the course of this article, I take some time to look back through Puig’s career, from his meteoric rise through the minors to his disappointing 2015 and 2016 seasons and of course to his last two World Series campaigns, the crown jewels of his stay in LA.
Chapter 1: The Signing
Yasiel Puig was one of the most important Dodger signings in recent history. Puig’s signing announced the re-entry of the Dodgers back into the international market and, along with Yoenis Cespedes’ contract, helped set a precedent for MLB teams signing stars out of Cuba. Here’s the initial reaction to the signing from ESPN:
"The Dodgers officially signed outfielder Yasiel Puig to a seven-year, $42 million contract on Friday, a record deal for a Cuban defector and a clear indication the team has rediscovered its traditional aggression in pursuing international players."
After signing his contract, All-Stars like Jose Abreu, Aroldis Chapman, and Jose Fernandez established themselves in the major leagues, and more are on the way following a historic agreement between the MLB and Cuba allowing players to come straight from Cuba to America to play professional baseball.
I can distinctly remember discussing the strange signing with my friends at the park during baseball practice that summer. We all thought it was crazy that someone we had never heard of (though as twelve-year-olds we truthfully did not know many international prospects) could be signed to such a long and expensive deal.
But Puig proved himself well worth the money, though it was not clearly visible until the spring of 2013.
Chapter 2: That Fateful Spring
Spring Training. After smacking four home runs in just nine games in the Arizona rookie league, Puig emerged from his relative anonymity during Spring Training in 2013.
In 27 Cactus League games, Puig dazzled Dodger fans, living up to the hype created by his seven-year deal by hitting .517 with 3 home runs and four steals to go along with two triples and five doubles. This was the best Spring showing Puig ever had, but it did not end exactly how he had hoped: with a 25-man Opening Day roster spot.
The team simply had too many outfielders (a problem the front office was able to maintain throughout Puig’s Dodger tenure) to give Puig a roster spot. But his potential did not go unnoticed by Dodger’s skipper Don Mattingly. Here’s what Mattingly told USA Today about Puig back in March 2013:
"“I kind of look at Yasiel like a Ferrari,” Mattingly said. “The motor’s there, the body’s there, the wheels are there – everything’s there, they just haven’t painted it yet. You leave that out in the sun, then you get it exposed a little bit.”Mattingly thought Puig seemed upset by the news.“He didn’t look happy,” he said. “You don’t really want guys to be happy that they’re getting sent out. I don’t mind if guys are upset they get sent down – he had a great camp.”"
Even after performing as well as any player could possibly perform in Spring Training, the Dodgers sent Puig back down to the minor leagues. He wouldn’t have to stay long, only playing in 40 games in double-A Chattanooga before being called up to the big league club.
His minor league numbers, a .317 average and eight home runs with 13 steals, were obviously solid, but it was his extraordinary Spring Training that kept him in the front of Dodger fan’s minds all the way until his call-up on June 3rd.
And he would remain a fan favorite all season long.
Chapter 3: (Almost) A Rookie of the Year Campaign
Puig burst onto the scene in his very first game, going 2-4 at the plate and more memorably Puig flexing his muscle from right field, creating a 9-3 double play to end the game. In his next game, he one-upped himself, blasting two home runs, one of which was a game-tier.
He would go on to have one of the best rookie months of all time:
"Puig would continue on his tear for the rest of the month — setting a Dodgers rookie record for hits and nearly setting a new Major League mark. From June 3 through July 3 (28 games), he slashed at an ungodly .440/.466/.743 rate with eight homers, seven doubles, 18 RBIs and 22 runs. He bat-flipped like he didn’t have a care in the world. He did the worm in the clubhouse. He finished 15th in the NL MVP vote and was an integral part to his team reaching the NLCS."
Puig did not have an amazing playoff series as a rookie, finishing the Dodgers’ ten-game playoff run with 14 strikeouts and just two extra-base hits (a double and a triple), though he did hit .333.
Despite this, his best season really did end up being his first season and while things began to go downhill from here, as you know he was able to pick himself back up and grind his way back into the spotlight, it just took a little time. But we’ll get there.
Chapter 4: The Legend Grows (As Do The Antics)
In 2014, Puig picked up right where he left off in the 2013 playoffs. While he did not quite maintain the awe-inspiring pace from his rookie year, the electric outfielder still managed to hit for a .296 average with 16 home runs and 11 steals, with his most memorable moment coming in the Home Run Derby, when he hit no home runs (with Robinson Cano’s dad pitching for him). It was clear he had lost at least some of his magic, but he remained one of the most beloved Dodgers despite his lesser performance.
His mind-numbing ability to produce both gems…
on defense was one of the few things that remained constant throughout his career.
Puig’s bat flips and questionable base running, not to mention his being not-so-fashionably late to games, started to cause him trouble in 2015. It wouldn’t be long before Puig’s attitude was too much for the front office to handle, despite his great arm and past performance.
Chapter 5: The Demotion
After an injury and mistake-plagued 2015, Puig struggled mightily in 2016 as well. And ownership couldn’t take it any longer.
The Dodgers sent down the mighty Puig just as the dog days of August were beginning. Here’s the initial reaction from the LA Times:
"The Dodgers delivered that message with a roster maneuver Tuesday, demoting Puig to the minor leagues one day after failing to trade him at the non-waiver deadline. The decision follows the acquisition of outfielder Josh Reddick on Monday.Puig is expected to report to triple-A Oklahoma City by this weekend. Before Tuesday’s game at Coors Field, General Manager Farhan Zaidi framed Puig’s demotion as “a chance to work on some things and develop further as a player.” But he declined to place a percentage on the chance Puig ever plays again for the Dodgers."
Some players would have fallen into this demotion pit and never came back out. Not Puig. He hit well enough in Triple-A Oklahoma to be recalled in September. To end the year, Puig hit .281 with 4 home runs with a solid K/BB rate of 15/6.
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His solid season-ending stretch portended what was to come for 2017 and 2018: the reemergence of Puig as a likable and valuable player on the field and in the clubhouse.
Chapter 6: The Resurgence
Over the last two seasons, Puig has revitalized his career. He has set career highs in home runs, stolen bases, ISO and contact rate during 2017 and 2018 and has gone from being infamous to simply famous.
During the 2018 playoffs, especially in the NLCS and World Series, Puig made sure to make the most of what would be his last few games as a Dodger, which I brought up about a month ago when keeping Puig was still a realistic possibility.
"In the 2018 postseason, Puig had a top-ten OPS, .855, to go along with two homers, two steals, and a .300 batting average. And he has put up similar postseasons almost every year. In his postseason career, Puig has put up a triple slash line of .280/.351/.429."
Homering against the Brewers in game 7 of the NLCS and even more memorably in Game 4 of the World Series to give the Dodgers a 4-0 lead (which the bullpen would lose of course).
Despite Kershaw’s postseason success and Jansen’s postseason shortcomings, Puig was the focus of the national coverage of the Dodgers.
His dugout kisses and backside-shaking were loved by Dodgers all postseason long, and he nearly was able to bring a championship to LA, despite the historic Red Sox’s dominance.
Chapter 7: The Offseason and the Trade
After such an impressive collection of moments, Puig’s Dodger career, while short, was certainly sweet.
And because of this, when rumors surrounding a Puig trade began to bubble to the surface, many Dodger fans (myself very much included) panicked.
Puig is a Dodger icon. He will remain one for as long as the fans who have lived under his reign can hold onto his memory. His number won’t be retired. His numbers aren’t irreplaceable. But he was ours. He was our energy, our sparkplug, our favorite.
He was our Wild Horse.
Thank you for all you have done for the Dodgers and for the city of Los Angeles.
You will be dearly missed.