The biggest Major League Baseball free agent names are generally off the board. Of course, players who can and will have some use are waiting for an offer they deem acceptable. That includes Pat Neshek, Ben Zobrist, Russell Martin and Jason Vargas. At this point in their careers, none are likely to be the difference maker between a playoff run and being an also-ran, but all can help a team in some capacity. With spring training having just begun, there will be injuries and sudden needs to be filled. A versatile player like Zobrist could find work relatively easily despite his apparent ambivalence about playing in 2020.
There is, however, one player who could be categorized as a “star” waiting out the market: Yasiel Puig.
The negatives with Puig are well-known. He’s mercurial; he doesn’t always hustle; he has a terrible temper; being on time for him is whenever he decides to show up to the park; and he rarely listens to his manager and coaches regarding offensive and defensive game plans. The nickname “Wild Horse” fits in every conceivable context.
Still, when he feels like it, he is one of the single most game-wrecking forces in all of MLB. His reputation for trying the patience of his managers and teammates is well-known. That is not why he is still waiting for a job. Puig could have gotten a short-term deal by now had he been willing to sign one, but given his age (29) and his five-tool talent, it’s understandable for him to want a contract that is commensurate with his abilities.
Understandably, teams are reluctant to give him such a deal worth what “X player not named Yasiel Puig” would get with an identical playing history: around $100 million. While many teams would sign Puig to a contract favorable to them, Puig is clearly waiting out a fair contract. As the season draws closer, that will change. Let’s look at the six teams where there may be a match.
Puig was traded to the Indians at the 2019 trade deadline. He played well in Cleveland with an .800 OPS in 207 plate appearances. There were no reported issues in the clubhouse and his on-field demeanor was good. Terry Francona is one of the easiest managers in the world to play for.
The Indians are limited in what they can do financially, but a one-year deal for Puig with a mutual option is presumably doable, especially when factoring in the production he brings. The window is closing for the Indians in their current configuration. With Francisco Lindor just about guaranteed to be traded at some point and Corey Kluber already gone, the Indians are heading for a retool, if not an outright rebuild. The club was middle of the pack in runs scored and their offense can use the Puig’s power.
The A’s have been a go-to place for players in need of a one-year, mutually beneficial deal to rehabilitate their reputation and enhance their value for another try at free agency the next off-season. General manager Billy Beane and manager Bob Melvin are known to handle difficult players.
There is space for Puig in their lineup. Stephen Piscotty is listed as their primary right fielder. He’s a productive player, but not a star talent on the level of Puig. With the Houston Astros reeling and vulnerable and the rest of the American League West not having improved to a major degree, the A’s could see the opening to go for the division title and sign Puig to enhance their chances.
The Rangers are in that unique “what are they?” place where it’s difficult to pigeonhole them. They’ve had three consecutive bad seasons, but have enough talent on the roster to justify categorizing them as a darkhorse contender in 2020. They’ve added Kluber, Kyle Gibson, Robinson Chirinos and Todd Frazier. These are not earth-shattering moves, but for a team that has a decent foundation, they’re good additions.
Joey Gallo is listed as their right fielder, but he’s so flexible defensively that if they chose to, they could find a spot for Puig. They’re no longer in the offensive launching pad at Rangers Ballpark at Arlington and are set to begin play in the new Globe Life Field this season. Will the landscape be different for their hitters? If so, they could account for that and sign Puig, whose power cannot be constrained by any park. They did well in 2019 with their low-cost signing of Hunter Pence. Puig could be a bigger addition.
Much like the Athletics, they too can be aggressive in trying to take down the Astros.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Joe Maddon has a history of corralling players with dicey reputations. The Angels hired Maddon with great fanfare and were expected to dive deeply into free agency. They did…to a point. Anthony Rendon signed a $245 million contract. They signed Jason Castro. Apart from that, they acquired Dylan Bundy and signed Julio Teheran. These moves were not sufficient to bridge the gap between them and the Athletics, let alone the Astros.
Their starting pitching is weak. Their bullpen is mediocre. They can hit and they can catch the ball. There are two ways to go about addressing team issues: improve weaknesses or bolster strengths. The Angels are limited to the latter with Puig.
Currently, their depth chart lists Brian Goodwin in right field. Goodwin is a solid bench player. Their best prospect, Jo Adell, is a right fielder, but he’s turning 21 in early April and only has 248 games of professional experience. Puig would be a good stopgap as they wait for Adell. On days Shohei Ohtani pitches, they could use the extra offensive pop with Puig.
The mutual loathing between Puig and Marlins manager Don Mattingly is well-known from their days with the Los Angeles Dodgers. There was speculation that the Marlins might be a good spot for him earlier in the winter, but it petered out.
This is the ultimate win-win situation for both parties. Time is running out for Lewis Brinson to show he can be an everyday player. They could be shifting players around the field with a fair number of at-bats for Puig in right field. Although the Mattingly-Puig relationship could be problematic, there is something to be said for familiarity. At least each knows what to expect from the other and it’s possible that Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada could have a decent influence on Puig so he would at least try and behave a little more professionally.
Since the Marlins are not contenders in 2020, he would also be trade bait for a contender at midseason and the Marlins could accrue a few prospects in exchange.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals had offensive woes in 2019, finishing 10th in the National League in runs scored. This winter, they lost Marcell Ozuna who had 29 home runs and an .800 OPS. They also traded away Jose Martinez. They are relying heavily on a rebound season from Matt Carpenter, a major improvement from Harrison Bader and youngsters Tommy Edman and Tyler O’Neill. O’Neill has an extensive injury history.
They won the National League Central based on the Chicago Cubs having a down year and the Milwaukee Brewers playing inconsistently until a scorching hot September. The division is parity-laden, so they can win it again. Adding Puig’s offense is an insurance policy, difficult to handle though he may be.