When Yasiel Puig debuted in 2013, hitting .319 with 19 homers and finishing as the NL Rookie of the Year runner-up, it looked like the Los Angeles Dodgers had found a star outfielder for years to come. Now, just over three years later, thanks to declining production, clubhouse dust-ups and off-field incidents, the 25-year-old Cuban is ticketed for the minor leagues after the team replaced him at the trade deadline with former Oakland A Josh Reddick.
Like most things with Puig, the move came with drama. Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, one of the best reporters in the business, said Puig “stormed off” out of Dodger stadium after learning he’d either be traded or demoted, with the team leaving for Colorado without him . Later, Puig’s agent said the player was told not to come to the park at all and complied with the request, leading to a correction by Rosenthal and Puig accepting the apology via Twitter, saying, “Don’t worry bro, we all make mistakes.”
If that’s the end of his Dodgers career, it’s fitting that Puig leaves among controversy and secondhand stories about his behavior. Described as aloof from the get-go, he dazzled on the field with power, speed, a howitzer arm but rankled fans, teammates and then-manager Don Mattingly with mental lapses in the field and on the base paths, chronic tardiness and entitlement. In Molly Knight’s book The Best Team Money Can Buy, which chronicles the Dodgers’ 2013 and 2014 seasons, lots of players openly despised Puig, with star pitcher Zack Greinke once nearly punching him. His brash on-field style, particularly his celebrations for big plays and arguments with umpires, made him a favorite target of opponents’ beanballs and columnists’ outdated complaints about players who don’t conform to a Jeter-like standard of professionalism.
It’s also worth noting how insanely difficult it was for Puig to get out of Cuba in the first place. He successfully defected on his fifth attempt off the island in a speedboat with help from, among others, a Mexican drug cartel and a Cuban mafia captain who was later shot to death. He and his fellow refugees were kept in a hotel under threats of death or dismemberment until a Miami businessman, who also had a criminal record, helped rescue them in exchange for 20 percent of Puig’s future earnings. That’s the just Cliff’s Notes version of the ordeal.
Of course, that doesn’t excuse his two arrests for speeding and reckless driving, or an incident last offseason when he got into a nightclub altercation that led him to be investigated by MLB for allegedly hitting his sister (he was cleared of the charges). There were also lighter, quirky stories, like when he considered buying a helicopter so he could fly to Dodger Stadium (the team nixed it, citing FAA rules, seriously).
So obviously he’s not the most mature guy. Every season, he’d address the media and say he was growing as a man and a teammate, and the coaches would praises his work ethic, at least publicly. “This year things are better. I think it’s because my teammates see the effort that I am putting in every day, which I didn’t do before,” Puig told ESPN before the season. “They see the change in my behavior, and I think it has helped to have better relationships in the clubhouse.” He showed up 15 pounds leaner, which the team thought would help him avoid the hamstring problems that limited him to 79 games, a .255 average and 11 home runs in 2015. New Dodgers manager Dave Roberts promised a fresh start for Puig, but that didn’t last too long before Puig got hurt again, failed to hustle on a few plays, and looked even worse for the first couple months of the season.
The timing of this week’s demotion, though, is curious. In 28 games since coming off the disabled list on June 28th, Puig is hitting .308 with an .870 OPS. Perhaps he’s hurting, as he barely played in late July but collected three hits on the 31st, the day before the deadline, and his power has been down all season. Whatever the case, now he’s in limbo – the Dodgers could keep him and hope he turns it around, on and off the field, down in the minors, for another run at the playoffs or next year. After all, they team has plenty of money to spend, and he’ll only cost $17 over the next three years, a pretty cheap price for a 25-year-old just two seasons removed from being an All-Star. Or maybe another team believes a change of scenery will do the young man some good, and pick him up through the waiver process.
Either way, it doesn’t look like L.A. will see Puig’s brand of highlights and headaches any time soon.