Camps are open, with one player noticeably absent

February 18th, 2020

We have been arguing about Yasiel Puig as long as we have known Yasiel Puig. He was screamed at by retired players just a month into his career. He had opponents throwing at him before they even knew his name. He drove Madison Bumgarner so nuts that Bumgarner basically started a fight every time their two teams played. I understand if it has been exhausting; I’ve been inundated by so many Yasiel Puig hot takes over the last seven years that I’ll confess just hearing his name makes me instinctively want to mute my television.

But I think I’d still be sad if he were gone. Even if Puig wears you out or annoys you, it’s hard to argue he’s somehow a bad guy. His teammates tend to love him like a little brother (even if they’re younger than he is), he has apologized for some of his early antics in Los Angeles and his Wild Horse Children’s Foundation is one of the most respected and beneficial in the sport. If you truly hate Yasiel Puig, I suspect this says more about you than it does about him. The sport would be lesser if it didn’t have him.

Which is a problem because, right now, the sport does not have him. Puig, as Spring Training games begin next weekend, still does not have a team, the highest-profile free agent remaining on the market. Though a late start likely wouldn’t affect him as much as it did, say, Craig Kimbrel last year, you’d like to see him get out there and get going. There aren’t that many shopping days until Christmas.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: I might not want Yasiel Puig to be out of baseball, but I’m not sure I want him on my team. And, to be sure, Puig has not been the player the last few years that his promise once suggested. His best-ever OPS came in his rookie year, a stunning .925, at the age of 22, fresh from Cuba, that made us all believe we might be looking at an all-time great. It hasn’t turned out that way. He has steadily fallen since then, and after he put up bounceback years in 2017 and 2018, the Dodgers finally decided to move on by trading him to Cincinnati. Reds fans seemed to enjoy him, but he had one of the worst 50-game stretches of his career for them and ultimately was shipped to Cleveland, where he was good, but not great, and certainly not enough to push them to the playoffs. His defense has fallen off, he’s striking out too much and he still gets under opponents’ skin enough to get involved in bench-clearing brawls even after he has already been traded. He can be a lot to take on. I get it.

But c’mon. Puig still has otherworldly talent, he’s only 29 years old and a good case could be made that his struggles last year were because he was pressing rather than some sort of sudden dropoff in skill. There isn’t a team in baseball that couldn’t use Puig in some way, shape or form, particularly at the low cost he’ll likely bring in. Forget a multi-year deal: You could maybe get Puig for one year at, say, $7 million or so? Maybe less? Probably less!

Sure, you have to get your fans and clubhouse on board with Puig. But, again, there were positive reports out of both Cleveland and Cincinnati last year. Heck, he’s almost worth it for his Instagram itself. The man sumo wrestles!

Puig wouldn’t require an everyday job. He had struggled with lefties for most of his career, but he was excellent against them in 2019 and still hit right-handers. You can’t count on him every day, but he’ll make your team better, at a cheap price. And -- and this still matters -- he will instantly become a fan favorite. Unless you have someone else on your team who can make incredible throws from right field, sumo wrestles and is smiling all the time.

The nice thing about Puig is that he won’t cost much if he doesn’t work out. You get almost all upside. If it turns out that he’s forgotten how to hit (unlikely) or becomes some sort of clubhouse problem (also unlikely, if slightly more likely than him forgetting how to hit), you can just release him while only marginally affecting your bottom line. It’s not like he has ever derailed teams from reaching the postseason; last year was the first in which his club didn’t reach the playoffs. And if you get his upside, if you get the old Puig (or even the 2017 Puig), you’re looking at a potential All-Star level player for almost nothing. More likely, you’re getting a supremely talented if mercurial player who can be a lightning bolt of energy for your team to be deployed as needed … and sit on the bench as needed. No matter what: He’ll be useful.

But who’s going to sign him? Apparently the Rays and the Giants (who, honestly, would feel weird anyway) are out in the wake of recent moves. He would instantly become the best hitter on the Tigers, but that’s not really what the Tigers care about right now. (Still: It’s weird that an MLB team could get their best hitter for hardly any money and still not do it, right?) The Cardinals have made it clear they don’t want any new outside outfielders and might be a strange cultural fit for Puig anyway.

You know what team makes a lot of sense? The White Sox. They could platoon him with newly acquired Nomar Mazara -- who has hardly proven himself anyway, particularly against left-handed pitchers -- and reap the benefits if he has a breakout season. He’d fit perfectly well with that roster; heck, a lot of those young players probably grew up idolizing him. And boy could he hit a bunch of homers there.

Every team is trying to upgrade on the margins, to find a little bit of an edge here or there. But there’s a former All-Star and MVP candidate, one who has shown to still have his talent, who is still in his 20s, right there, for the taking, for a wildly discounted rate. The question is not whether someone should sign Yasiel Puig. The question is: Why wouldn’t everyone want to sign him? After all: Puig’s your friend.