By definition, there’ll always be one final major free agent to come off the board. It’s a lonely spot, perhaps, but also one where the market is yours and yours alone. Things rarely shake out quite as might originally have been hoped, but neither does last-man-standing status mean the money has necessarily dried up. We saw two fairly large contracts handed out in the middle of the 2019 season, including a multi-year pact for Craig Kimbrel.
MLBTR’s top 50 list has been picked over rather thoroughly. There are three unsigned players, including a solid relief arm (Pedro Strop) and useful utilityman (Brock Holt). But if we’re being honest, there were others just off the list who could make roughly similar free agent cases. We predicted both players to receive fairly modest guarantees.
So with Nick Castellanos leaving the board yesterday, we can now official declare: this year, the Big Name Yet To Sign is Yasiel Puig. His days as a true star with the Dodgers are distant memories now, but Puig has mostly been productive outside of a poor stretch with the Reds to open the 2019 season. He hit about twenty percent above the league-average rate in the prior two campaigns and finished with a solid run late last year after being dealt to the Indians. Depending upon one’s preferred means of measuring and valuing defense, Puig was a 3-4 WAR player in 2017 and 2018. He’s only just turned 29; perhaps his downtick in 2019 was just a blip.
On the one hand, this isn’t much of a surprise. Much like the three other young corner outfielders on this year’s market, Puig was an awfully tough player to gauge. All the more so in his case … not only does Puig come with some performance questions, but he’s a notably eccentric player whose occasional hijinks may not be fully welcomed by all organizations. But this was hardly inevitable. Puig also has long looked like an intriguing buy-low candidate — one that a value-hunting team might well have targeted from the outset.
Whatever the background, we now have a much clearer picture of the Puig situation than when we predicted he’d take down a one-year, $8MM deal when the market opened. We’ve now seen Castellanos (four years, $64MM), Ozuna (one year, $18MM), and Avisail Garcia (two years, $20MM) set a market that had been ill-defined. And multiple teams have filled openings, of course, even beyond the clubs that inked those players (the Reds, Braves, and Brewers). The Diamondbacks and Marlins have installed multiple outfielders; the White Sox seem to have filled out their lineup.
But that’s not to say that it’s now all that obvious where Puig ought to land. The Tigers — our guess at the outset of the winter — still make sense for all the same reasons. But it’s also possible the club will prefer to preserve its roster flexibility to jump on some intriguing players that shake loose early in 2020. A return to the Indians still makes some amount of sense if the club elects to add back some salary. That the Cleveland org went out and got Puig last year adds to the plausibility.
There are other teams worth considering as possibilities. The Rangers have pursued a righty bat to join a lefty-heavy outfield mix, though whether they’ve got interest in Puig specifically isn’t clear. It’s wild to imagine it, but the Giants are certainly an on-paper fit for the same essential reasons that the Tigers are. You could argue that the Orioles should be as well, even if they already have a few guys on hand that they’d like to give a look to. And why not the Rockies? The club isn’t spending much, but could perhaps find a way to make one bet and could really use the upside. Puig’s right-handed bat would provide much-needed lineup balance.
And what about teams back-filling after trades? The Pirates could be involved in theory, though they’re mostly in need of center field capability and are surely wary of off-field (or on-field) shenanigans after a trying 2019 season. The Mariners previously dropped Domingo Santana and aren’t exactly laden with established talent. And hey, what about the Red Sox? If they end up dealing Mookie Betts, an upside play might be just the ticket.
If we consider timeshare possibilities, the Angels make some sense. The club needs to be willing to accept some risk to turn the corner. Puig could pair with Brian Goodwin while the club waits for Jo Adell to force his way up. The Marlins can still consider Puig as part of a revamped lineup mix, even if they aren’t really set up to install him as an everyday presence. If there’s still an avenue for the Rays to jump in on Puig, it’s a narrow one now that Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena are on hand. But the Tampa Bay organization can surely figure a way to shift things around if it sees a chance to shoehorn in a value opportunity.
It takes some squinting and some balancing of tradeoffs even to imagine a fit for Puig. Just how specific teams feel about the polarizing player, and just what situation he prefers, will no doubt dictate the outcome. But there are plenty of theoretical possibilities.