Look, I can’t explain it, but Yasiel Puig is still a free agent.
You also wouldn’t expect the Rays to have room for Puig, given the acquisition of enough part-time players that platoons will dominate the Rays outfield for much of 2020 — maybe even in center field. (Hello, Manuel Margot’s trade availability!)
Nevertheless, Yasiel Puig is a talented, high-energy outfielder with a neutral splits bat that would be top-five on the Rays offense against either handedness. Check out Ian’s recent work applying Steamer projections to regressed platoon splits if you want to see the data firsthand.
The question is not whether Yasiel Puig is a worthwhile player to have on the team — he is. But is he a fit for the Rays given the roster they’ve constructed this offseason?
So let’s give it a try.
Current Rays Roster
Let’s start this exercise by establishing the most likely candidates for the 13 standard position player opportunities on the 26-man roster. Better yet, acknowledging the Rays could flex that to 14 periodically though the year, let’s start with 14 and assume maximum platoon opportunities.
Unless Kevan Smith outlasts one of the names above, the only other 40-man catcher is too-far-off prospect Ronaldo Hernandez.
Names I’ve preemptively scratched from the 40-man roster are players expected to begin the year in Triple-A: Vidal Brujan, Lucius Fox, Brian O’Grady, and Kevin Padlo.
This is the full roster to select from on the Rays 40-man roster, all are viable.
Now let’s use these names above, but guarantee Puig a spot in the lineup first — say hitting third and playing right field. Would the rest fall into place?
Fit vs RHP
2B Brandon Lowe*
LF Austin Meadows*
RF Yasiel Puig
1B Ji-Man Choi*
DH Yoshi Tsutsugo*
3B Yandy Diaz
SS Willy Adames
CF Kevin Kiermaier*
C1 Michael Perez*
C2 Mike Zunino
BN Jose Martinez
BN Hunter Renfroe
BN Daniel Robertson
BN Randy Arozarena
I’m giving the bench slots to three players more than likely to be in the fold, and then adding the most senior utility defender in Daniel Robertson. If the Rays add one more bench slot and flex to 14 spots, Randy Arozarena would fit the bill, particularly if one is looking to have an occasional platoon with Kevin Kiermaier.
Speaking of which...
Fit vs LHP
The Rays are going to platoon as much as they possibly can, it seems, so let’s keep our goal of having Puig in right field, and see if we can field a competitive team...
CF Randy Arozarena
3B Yandy Diaz
RF Yasiel Puig
DH Jose Martinez
1B Austin Meadows*
LF Hunter Renfroe
SS Willy Adames
2B Daniel Robertson
C1 Mike Zunino
C2 Michael Perez*
BN Kevin Kiermaier*
BN Yoshi Tsutsugo*
BN Ji-Man Choi*
BN Brandon Lowe*
Oh dear. Who’s on first?
It looks like overall it’s not possible to get all of the right handed hitters as well as the best-hitting lefties on the field, unless the Rays want to get this creative on offense. If you remove one bench position, again it’s Arozarena who gives way to a full time Kiermaier. It’s hard to envision any other player could go unless Daniel Robertson is in Durham and Brandon Lowe is getting more frequent reps at second base (but then who backs up shortstop?).
What’s interesting here is that both Austin Meadows and Yoshi Tsutsugo project stronger than Robertson in the model Ian has provided, but the complicating factor is not the outfield, where we assume those two are most apt to play — there are enough options there. It’s the corner infield.
What will the Rays do against southpaws at first and third base, Puig or no? Perhaps Brandon Lowe stays in the field and Robertson (or Brosseau or Wendle if either wins the backup infielder role) fill that need. Or perhaps the Rays will get creative at first base with the likes of Martinez, Meadows, and Tsutsugo giving it a go.
Back on track.
Why might the Rays stay away from Puig?
There are three key reasons the Rays might not sign Yasiel Puig. The first is roster space, explained in the above exercise. Puig would have made more sense earlier in the offseason before Tsutsugo, Renfroe, Martinez, and Arozarena were acquired. Now it’s hard to figure where everyone fits, particularly at the corners of the infield.
The second might be redundant, but it’s money. The Rays are unlikely to drop serious dollars on marginal upgrades, and Puig’s price tag might simply be too high for what the Rays are looking to spend. Avisail Garcia had to settle for less than $4 million to play in Tampa Bay... he parlayed that into a $10 million AAV after a strong 2019, but that seems to be where the Rays play on the FA market, and Puig is surely asking above that.
The third reason, however, is less obvious — and it’s not a concern with “makeup” or whatever coded language baseball folks want to use for players of color with volatile personalities...
(Dare I link the tweet? Fine, here.)
Jim Rosenhaus and Bob DiBiasio were down at Canal Park in Akron today for an Indians luncheon. When asked if the Indians will re-sign Yasiel Puig, Bobby D and Rosey said Puig beats to a different drum, which rubs Tito the wrong way. “There’s a reason no team has signed him yet.”— Tony Mazur (@TonyMazur) January 29, 2020
The real reason is the open question as to whether he is a full time player.
Steamer and similar projections like Yasiel Puig vs both handedness of pitchers, but he doesn’t have the track record to back that up season-to-season. The sample size vLHP could largely be noise, and we don’t have the hitFX to know what’s real.
Last year Puig was pretty evenly split in his results with a 99 wRC+ vs the same hand and 105 wRC+ vs the opposite — neither numbers you should fall in love with, but it was a down season overall. But looking at his career you instead find an astonishing reverse split of 130/109 vs R/L, a difference eye-popping enough to make you think he played for the Astros.
What Yasiel Puig is — other than a powder keg — is anybody’s best guess. If you are looking for entertainment — as a fan — it’s hard to go wrong with hoping your team signs the 29-year old Cuban star, but if you’re looking for consistency . . . maybe it’s in-platoon-we-trust after all.