LOS ANGELES — Of all the ways the Dodgers might improve from 2016 to 2017, Yasiel Puig just might be the most dynamic solution. Whether that means he’s traded or if he remains in Los Angeles is hard to predict, much like his performance. But the way Puig was talked about on Wednesday, he sure sounded like a player the Dodgers want to keep around.
“I think the upside is significant. There were a lot of very good conversations in August and into September. I've definitely seen some maturation,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “In terms of how that translates on the field remains to be seen.
“He's capable of so much. His teammates want to see him achieve that, we want to see him achieve that. We'll do whatever we can to put him in a direction to do that.”
Puig hit .263/.323/.416 with 11 home runs in 106 games for the Dodgers in 2016, a rather ordinary year, his second straight pedestrian campaign, given the potential he showed in his first two major league seasons.
But numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. Puig was humbled, the subject of multiple trade rumors, and was demoted to the minors for a month in August, his first non-rehab time on the farm in over three years.
"Yasiel has grown up a lot. He showed a lot of maturity in September and, for the first time a split role for him. I think he handled it awesome,” Justin Turner said on Wednesday. “Chase [Utley] and Adrian [Gonzalez], Howie [Kendrick] and I sat down with him and had a really good conversation with him, just trying to do the right things.
"One of the things that happens with him is a lot of people get around him and he gets so excited. There's no question he loves the game of baseball, but he gets so excited that he forgets the roots and the right things that he really wants to do. He genuinely wants to be a good person.”
Attitude, and punctuality, weren’t the only reasons Puig was optioned to Triple-A Oklahoma City. The Dodgers wanted him to work on things with his swing.
"If you look at someone who can dance like he can, he doesn't have the rhythm in the batters box,” Friedman explained.
Puig hit .348/.400/.594 in 19 games with OKC, then returned in September to hit .281/.331/.561 with four home runs back with the Dodgers.
"If you look at muscle memory, it's a hard thing to change. He had some things we wanted him to work on when went down to Oklahoma City, and started making progress,” Friedman said. “What we saw in September was just scratching the surface, because he didn't have that much time to work on it. He's been getting after it this winter, so we'll see in spring training how those changes have taken effect.”
Puig was in Curacao for Kenley Jansen’s wedding, the weekend the closer made his decision to return to the Dodgers. Fellow teammates Turner and Scott Van Slyke were also there.
Like last offseason, the Dodgers asked Puig to get leaner this winter, and he seems to have responded. He will rejoin his teammates in Los Angeles later this week, working out with Turner, Gonzalez and others at Dodger Stadium.
"I saw him at Kenley's wedding, and he's in outstanding shape,” Turner said.
For what it’s worth, Dan Zymborski’s ZiPS projections — revealed earlier Wednesday at FanGraphs — predict Puig to hit .275/.344/.464 with 19 home runs in 2017. Puig’s projected .352 wOBA is the best on the team.
Steamer projections similarly predict Puig will hit .284/.351/.482 with 20 home runs and a .356 wOBA. That’s right in the middle of Puig’s first two years (.387 wOBA, 153 wRC+) and his last two years (.324 wOBA, 107 wRC+).
The Dodgers would surely be happy if Puig reaches those projections, but it’s the thought of returning to that star level that will keep getting Puig chances.