The Red Sox haven’t done a whole hell of a lot this offseason, but we all know there is still a very real chance they make a major trade or two. Specifically, there is a decent chance they trade an outfielder, whether it be Mookie Betts or Jackie Bradley Jr. We all have our opinions of this possibility — you all know I sure do — but ultimately if it happens it happens and there’s nothing I or anyone else can do. Fun!
More importantly, if/when a deal or multiple deals happen, the Red Sox have to push forward and build their roster. Focus would turn a little more on the future, but there would still be enough talent left over that 2020 wouldn’t become irrelevant. More to the point, they would have to find a replacement in the outfield. Now, it’s obviously possible they could get that replacement in the trade, which would make the rest of what I’m about to write pretty much moot. But, if they don’t, then they have to look elsewhere and the options are fairly limited at this point. One name who is still available, and I can’t stop thinking about as a potential signing, is Yasiel Puig.
I know this suggestion is not going to be unanimously popular among people reading this. If we’re being honest, I don’t even know if it’s a good idea. I just know it’s an idea, and one that I am at least intrigued by. So, if you’ll indulge me, I am going to try and talk myself through the different layers here.
Puig is obviously one of those guys who is more than just what he provides on the field, but that’s still the most important part and where we have to start. In all, he is clearly a major downgrade compared to Betts, but who isn’t? Compared to Bradley, I think it is much more even in terms of overall value, but they get there in very different ways. In totality he’s roughly an average regular — FanGraphs’ projections have him slightly under two wins in a little less than full-time playing time — which isn’t super exciting but is better than most of the available options at this point in the year.
Offensively, he is an aggressive hitter but one who normally doesn’t strike out a ton. Last year he did see his strikeout rate climb to just under 22 percent, which was his highest rate since his rookie year, with a corresponding bump in swinging strike rate. Still, even that rate is fine in this era of baseball. The more concerning regression was with the power. While the rest of the league was hitting home runs like it was nothing, Puig watched his Isolated Power fall below .200 for the first time since 2016. The good news is that he actually hit more balls in the air than normal while maintaining his typical above-average hard-hit rate, so it’s not unreasonable to expect a bounce-back here. Overall, the aforementioned projections have him at a 111 wRC+, and I’d probably go a few points higher than that. He’d probably slot in fifth or sixth in the Red Sox lineup depending on whether he was replacing Betts or Bradley.
Defensively, he is a pure right fielder. His arm is his best asset, and it is one that would play very well in a cavernous Fenway Park. The defensive metrics have generally been positive with his overall glove work, though he’s trending closer to average of late. Even so, he would fit well here. If Betts were the one being traded, he would obviously just take his place in the field. In the event of a Bradley trade, his presence would allow Betts to shift to center field, which in turn would keep Andrew Benintendi out of center field.
Okay, so that’s the on-the-field stuff. He’s not a superstar, but he’s a usable starter, which is fine at this point of the year. The reason Puig is such a wildcard, though, is all the other stuff. His time in Los Angeles was tumultuous, to say the least, with constant questions about his effort and attitude in the clubhouse. My initial reaction to all of this is always that it seems like hyperbole, because this stuff is almost always hyperbole. It’s just what we do whether we mean to or not, myself included. I still think it’s a bit overblown.
That’s not to say there was nothing there, however. Puig was very clearly difficult to deal with in Los Angeles. Andy McCullough wrote a great piece on this when Puig first faced the Dodgers last season after being traded in the previous winter, and the responses from Dodgers coaches and players were illuminating. I’d suggesting reading it for yourself, but the summary is that basically everyone really liked him as a person but also found it very frustrating to work with him and coach him. More recently, he ended last season with the Indians and the quotes coming from them were more positive, but of course also came while he was still in the clubhouse. It’s easier to be honest when you don’t have to see him at the office the next day, you know?
This whole thing obviously makes things a little extra risky for the Red Sox, particularly if he were replacing Betts. The team is already in a tough spot with the fans after a brutal season last year, the sign-stealing stuff — for which the investigation is still ongoing, of course — losing Alex Cora and potentially dealing their franchise player. It would make sense to be extra cognizant of having a smooth season on and off the field. That said, it should be noted that Puig’s problems in L.A. were with the team. Fans almost universally loved him. Still, it’s not hard seeing it play out a little differently given the media market in which we exist.
A way to offset any such concern, and also help in the financial aspect, ties into what kind of winter it’s been for Puig. While the free agent market has generally moved much more quickly this year compared to other seasons, Puig is left standing just a few weeks out from the start of spring training. We just saw Marcell Ozuna sign a one-year, $18 million deal after declining an essentially identical qualifying offer back in November, so it makes sense that players at this point would be taking lesser deals. Puig was projected for three years and $38.3 million ($12.8 AAV) by Fangraphs before the season and a one-year, $8 million deal by MLB Trade Rumors. At this point, it sure seems like MLB Trade Rumors prediction will be closer.
Obviously, a trade of Betts or Bradley would be done with the idea that the team wants to get under the luxury tax this season, something they indicated early in the winter and nothing they’ve done this offseason suggests that’s no longer the case. It’s hard to say just how much salary they’d be able to add to keep with this goal since we don’t know how much salary they’d be sending out, but I do feel confident saying Puig wouldn’t cost anything exorbitant. Furthermore, a one-year contract could feasibly lead him to staying a little more motivated on and off the field in search of a better market as a free agent next winter.
I don’t know if the Red Sox are going to trade Betts or Bradley or both or neither. Nobody does at this point. But there is certainly more smoke growing around the Betts rumors, and at this point it’s worth thinking about possible replacements. I think I’m on board with the Puig idea, but A) I don’t imagine it would actually happen and B) I understand the hesitation. But the upside would be that, even if this season went sideways, there’s no way it wouldn’t be entertaining.