21-year-old Yasiel Puig didn’t receive the same kind of hype as Yoenis Cespedes after defecting from Cuba. He did receive the same kind of money, though, mostly thanks to the new Dodgers ownership’s desire to flex its financial muscle.
According to CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, the Dodgers signed Puig to a deal worth $42 million over seven years. It’s twice what most expected him to get and $6 million more than Cespedes received from the A’s this spring.
Puig is an interesting talent. In his second and final season in Cuba, he hit .330/.430/.581 with 17 homers and a 39/49 K/BB ratio in 327 at-bats. And he did that at age 19, which is pretty exceptional even given the high offensive levels in Cuba. He’s also said to have excellent speed.
Still, the Dodgers would seem to be taking a huge risk here. Puig didn’t play last year. He hit a modest .276/.371/.425 in his first season in Cuba. For all of his supposed speed, he was used primarily as a corner outfielder and he wasn’t much of a basestealer in Cuba, going 13-for-19 in his two seasons. There isn’t much in the way of scouting reports on him — unlike Cespedes, he never saw much action against international competition — but Baseball America doesn’t seem very impressed.
But then again, maybe huge risk is the wrong term. For the White Sox or Cubs — two teams that were considered quite interested in Puig — it certainly would be. The Dodgers, though, are flush with cash and can afford to roll the dice, even at such a lofty price. In a best-case scenario, their Puig-Matt Kemp-Andre Ethier outfield is the best in the NL come 2014. It’s also quite possible Puig flounders in the minors and proves to be a fourth or fifth outfielder. One thing that seems clear is that he’s going to need time; given that he hasn’t played in a year and a half and he doesn’t have all that much experience anyway, it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll make an impact in the majors before mid-2013 at the earliest.
And that’s what’s really scary; this is pretty much the baseball equivalent of a Vegas trip. One person might set themselves a $250 gambling limit for the weekend, another $1,000. The Dodgers, on the other hand, can afford to gamble with $40 million right now, a concept that should have free-agent-to-be Cole Hamels awfully excited.
The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.
Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.
Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”
Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.
The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.