The Dodgers packed up, left the land of the saguaro cactus and headed back to Los Angeles on Wednesday with their Opening Day roster confirmed. Yasiel Puig, despite all the off-field drama over his Dodger career, the month-long demotion to Triple-A last season and the disappointing on-field results that have progressively deteriorated over the last four years due to lack of preparation and injury, was among those who made the trek, is still a Dodger and is presumably stenciled in as their starting right fielder.
At 26, Puig should be in his prime and remains an integral part of the Dodgers’ plan for a World Series ring. Once again, as it always does in April, hope springs eternal. Puig and his teammates, who often aren’t keen on the extra time needed to corral the exploits of the Wild Horse, head into a fresh season vying for that coveted title.
Puig has been one of my favorite players since his memorable debut in 2013, but my starry-eyed adoration for him has increasingly waned in light of the multiple personal predicaments he has been embroiled in and his uncultivated talent that has been seemingly frittered away in the seasons following his promising rookie campaign due to his unpredictability and inability to focus or even show up on time.
The questions and doubt surrounding Puig that linger heading into the 2017 season are all reasonable given the fact that he hit .263/.323/.416 with a career-worst .416 slugging percentage, .153 isolated power (SLG-AVG), 6.5% walk rate and 102 wRC+ in 368 plate appearances last year. The Dodgers are hoping that Puig can not only regain that early-career success that catapulted him into stardom, but is also able to learn to find a balance between his “Make Baseball Fun Again” mantra, a focused energy on plate discipline, a stronger more consistent work ethic and renewed clubhouse chemistry with his teammates.
No one wants Puig to abandon his affable personality and zest for the game. An iconic Puig bat flip and a laughable ejection during Spring Training is evidence that Puig is still Puig. Yet if the offensive results don’t manifest this season, Puig’s opportunity to play in Los Angeles may finally come to a conclusion.
The results this spring have actually not been there after a promising start. He has hit .208/.276/.434/.710 (11-for-53) with three doubles, three home runs, five walks and 14 strikeouts in 17 games in Cactus League play. He was also scratched twice from the Dodgers’ lineup, once due to calf tightness and once after extra time spent with Turner Ward in the batting cage. The good news is that Spring Training numbers are arbitrary. The process is ultimately more important as players use the time to hone their skills and work on progression in their game.
And there have been changes.
A slimmer, more streamlined Puig now stands a bit more upright in the batter’s box in hopes of catching up to the fastball. What has caught up to Puig for his Dodgers tenure is time. It’s been nearly four years since he made his MLB debut, and patience has worn thin for his coaching staff, teammates and fans as they have watched Puig regress and fall back into his old ways again and again. He has had to grow up on the baseball diamond, and has understandably hit some bumps while acclimating to a new country and culture, but the time has come for Puig to stop making excuses and to perform to expectations. He may never be a 5 WAR player again, but he has all the tools to be an excellent defender and an above-average offensive contributor, the complete player the Dodgers need him to be.
One noticeable difference I saw in Yasiel Puig’s focus during Spring Training this year was the extra time he has put into working on his swing, a work still in progress, with hitting coach Turner Ward. With the exception of an entertaining defensive workout taking, and often missing, grounders at third base on the back fields of Camelback Ranch, Puig was listening to instruction from Ward in the batting cage for multiple lengthy sessions over the course of the two days I was there.
Before the Dodgers broke camp in Glendale, Dave Roberts sent Puig to play in a minor-league game to continue to work out the flaws in his swing. Roberts told Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times that Puig’s swing still needs improvement.
Yasiel Puig took part in a minor league game designed to give him an opportunity to work out the kinks in the mechanics of his swing. Puig has hit .234 in 47 Cactus League at-bats. “It’s got to be better,” Roberts said. “And he understands that.”
Although it is apparent that Puig has been more willing to put in the time in order to work this Spring, only time will tell if his motivation will continue into the new season should he struggle at the plate. Roberts has stayed positive about Puig over the course of Spring Training, and he said he continues to be “all in on Yasiel Puig.”
Dave Roberts not wavering on Puig in RF: "We're committed to all our players. You got to bet on them, love on them. I'm all in on Yasiel."
— David Vassegh (@THEREAL_DV) March 11, 2017
Puig will likely be the Dodgers’ Opening Day right fielder, and he should be. The ending to his story will be up to him to write. He can reclaim his career and continue the healthier habits he has adopted in order to improve himself both in baseball and in life, or he can fall back into his old habits and finally get that strike three call on his Dodger career. Hopefully last year truly was a wake-up call and this time around he opts for the former option rather than the latter.