Yasiel Puig had already broken in a red glove by the time his new team conducted its first full workout here last week. The cleats, the duffel bag, the batting gloves — all red, flowing in perfect harmony with the Cincinnati Reds uniform that he will don for at least the next five months, perhaps even a bit longer.
“By the way,” Puig said, starting to smile, “this is my color. I love red.”
Any traces of Puig’s tumultuous time with the Los Angeles Dodgers have faded by now, but only by way of appearance. The Dodgers remain a very noticeable presence in Puig’s thoughts, acting mostly as a source of motivation in a quest to prove that he can — and, no matter what the numbers say, always could — hit those damn lefties.
He is, in spite of lingering bitterness, thankful for the time, thankful for the experiences, thankful for the fans and, yes, thankful for the color.
Blue, Puig announced, is his second favorite.
“Those are the two colors that I want to be in my house, in my closet — red or blue,” Puig said. “There’s a lot of red teams, there’s a lot of blue teams. It’s not only Cincinnati, not only Dodgers, you know? Maybe Texas, Anaheim. I don’t know. There’s a lot of red teams. St. Louis Cardinals — I don’t know. I also can stay here. You never know.”
Puig will be a free agent at season’s end, and in case you forget, he will happily remind you. The thought never seems to stray too far from his mind. After starring early on, then getting hurt, then settling in as a productive-yet-unspectacular reverse-splits right fielder, Puig is staring at an uncertain future on the open market — a reality that has only been magnified by the continued deterioration of baseball’s middle class.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Puig said. “If I don’t have my best year now, maybe next year I go in with no color.”
Puig sat on a folding chair just outside the Reds’ complex and drew a hearty laugh from the dozen or so media members who surrounded him on a crisp Monday afternoon, moments after he completed his first official day with his new team. Puig arrived in Goodyear about a week earlier than he was required to and immediately began to work on ways to be more effective against left-handed pitchers, the ones who so often confined him to the bench in Los Angeles.
The wounds from that still appear fresh.
“If you’re a big leaguer,” Puig said, “you need to play every day.”
When healthy, Puig played against 92 percent of the lefty starters the Dodgers faced from 2013 to 2016. Over the past two years, however, that number dropped to 75 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. His OPS against lefties fell to .612 in that stretch, 302 points below what he produced against righties, a rare variance for a right-handed hitter.
“The last couple years, I didn’t work hard because I still have a contract to go. Now I think I’ll work hard more than any year in my life.”
Turner Ward, the beloved Dodgers hitting coach who also made the offseason move to Cincinnati, believes Puig began to open his front side too early on balls traveling in on him. Ward is hopeful that a slight change to the way Puig sets up against lefties will go a long way, alluding to a similar adjustment made by Justin Turner a couple of seasons ago.
Puig has talked to Ward almost daily about his desire to play against lefties and has demonstrated it through his work, constantly seeking the services of left-handed batting-practice thrower Rolando Valles. He understands the need for improvement, but he is firm in his belief that the Dodgers did not present him with enough opportunities.
“Sometimes the team does something they think is good for you,” Puig said, “and it’s not that good.”
Puig made one point multiple times over the course of a 20-minute interview: He wasn’t trusted to hit lefties during the regular season, then was put in a tough spot by suddenly being asked to face them in the postseason.
“If I don’t play in the season,” Puig said, “why you want to put me in now in the playoffs?”
It seems impossible, but Puig sounds like he is both still affected by it and completely over it.
He is going from a team that made back-to-back World Series trips to one that lost 95 games this past season; from sold-out stadiums and star-laden clubhouses to cold nights and general irrelevance. But he seems energized by the promise of a fresh start. Puig called the first full-squad workout “an amazing day,” stressed the importance of working “as a family” and promised, multiple times, that this Reds team will have more fun and win more games than teams past.
Minutes after being traded on Dec. 21 — as part of a seven-player deal inspired mostly by the Dodgers’ desire to shed payroll and clear redundancies — Puig put on a Reds cap and posted what looked like a celebratory video on his Instagram page. He was blown away by the number of Reds fans who responded by welcoming him warmly. He felt the same love when he arrived in Cincinnati to meet with coaches and front-office members over the winter, then again when he met his new teammates this month.
“We’ve only had like five days together,” Puig said, “and everybody treats myself like I’ve been here the last five years.”
Some of the minor leaguers have called him “Coach Puig” for the way he has helped them with their defense, the thought of which made Puig smile. At 28, with five major league seasons behind him, Puig is embracing the possibility of being a mentor. He lamented not having enough of them throughout his career, naming only three veteran players — Adrian Gonzalez, Albert Pujols and Robinson Cano — who took the time to help.
“This is the year, finally, I understand that I can help a lot of people,” Puig said. “It’s not about yourself; it’s not what you do. If you don’t help anybody around you, you don’t do nothing in this game.”
Puig hopes his young teammates feed off his energy but don’t mimic his bad habits — that they don’t overthrow cutoff men, that they don’t run wildly on the bases and that they don’t disregard the details. He hopes they work hard.
“I never worked hard,” Puig said. “Maybe that’s the reason why I didn’t have my better years.”
Never worked hard?
“The last couple years, I didn’t work hard because I still have a contract to go,” Puig said with a slight chuckle. “Now I think I’ll work hard more than any year in my life.”
Puig dazzled early on. He posted a .305/.386/.502 slash line while displaying elite defense and infectious energy in 2013 and 2014, making an All-Star team and nearly winning the National League Rookie of the Year award. In 2015 and 2016, Puig was limited to 183 games. In 2017 and 2018, his slash line fell to .264/.337/.490.
Puig compiled 4.7 FanGraphs wins above replacement over those last two years, ranked seventh among Dodgers position players. He was good, not great. His style bewildered fans, enraged opponents and, at times, exasperated members of his own organization. It no longer became worth it.
On the first day of camp, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was asked if it would feel weird to no longer have Puig around.
“I wouldn’t say weird,” Roberts said. “It’s going to be different. Yasiel did a lot for us and the community, for the organization, and a lot of it took a lot of focus off individual players because he liked that attention. That’s a positive. And he could handle it. So it is going to be different. It’s going to be a quieter camp, whether that’s good or bad.”
In three years as his hitting coach with the Dodgers, Ward became one of Puig’s closest confidants. They built a relationship on brutal honesty, and over time, Ward became one of the few people who could actually reach Puig. Ward noticed a big heart and learned that Puig’s intentions were oftentimes misunderstood. When the Reds brought up the possibility of trading for Puig, Ward vouched for him.
“Watching him mature over the past few years, watching his abilities, I really felt like he was an MVP candidate,” Ward said. “I think he’s got that kind of ability. When he puts it all together, he’s very capable of doing something like that.”
Ward has never seen Puig work this hard this early, but his enthusiasm is tempered. He seeks consistency out of Puig. He wants to see him remain diligent through the inevitable bad times, a constant struggle throughout Puig’s career.
Ward’s presence should only benefit Puig, as will the familiarity of former Dodgers teammates Matt Kemp and Alex Wood. The hitter-friendly dimensions of Great American Ball Park also will help, as will the added motivation that comes in a contract season.
Puig says there is another source of motivation.
“I feel the love from the city, from the team, and the love for having me here this season,” he said. “I want to do the best I can to help the team win and give the best of myself and the game to all the fans and all the city — thank the city back for having me here and giving me this opportunity to play this year, with a Cincinnati Reds uniform.”