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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Yasiel Puig

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A report that the Yankees were in contact with free agent outfielder caught everybody by surprise.

Cleveland Indians v Washington Nationals Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

When you think of holes on the Yankees roster, a corner outfield spot probably ranks somewhere near the bottom: after all, the Yankees have Aaron Judge, Clint Frazier, Mike Tauchman, and Giancarlo Stanton already on the roster. That, however, has not stopped Brian Cashman from at least checking in on additional depth at the position: earlier this week, Mark Feinsand reported that the Yankees were one of five teams who had expressed some level of interest in free agent outfielder Yasiel Puig.

Puig represents an interesting buy-low candidate for virtually every team in the league. He did not play at all in 2020, as his summer-time agreement with the Atlanta Braves fell apart after he tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. Since making his Major League debut on June 2, 2013, he has posted one of the better stat lines in the league: a .277/.348/.475 line with 132 HR, good for a 122 OPS+, 18.9 bWAR, and 18 fWAR. However, much of that value came in his first two seasons — 9.4 fWAR in just 252 games — and he posted just a 99 OPS+ in 2019 between the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians.

While he’s not likely to return to his astronomical early career performance (159 OPS+ in 2013, 145 in 2014), Puig is a good bet to see an uptick in performance in 2021 — assuming that the year off does not result in rust, of course. Throughout his career, he has consistently had a barrel percentage in the 8.8-10.6% range, more than 2% above average (the exception is 2016, in which he posted a career-low OPS+ of 98). Although he has consistently ranked below average in walk rate, Statcast considers him to be above average when it comes to deciding whether or not to swing at a pitch. Lastly, his 2019 Statcast profile finds him most similar to 2019 Gleyber Torres, J.T. Realmuto, and Joc Pederson, a very good group to be counted among.

Of course, performance on the field has never been the biggest problem for Puig; it’s his off-field problems that have generated trouble for him. During his first big league season, he was arrested on two different occasions for speeding and reckless driving. Back in 2016, the Los Angeles Dodgers felt the need to explicitly inform Puig that he was not allowed to arrive at the ballpark in a helicopter because it was prohibited by federal law. The following season, he was suspended a game for making an obscene gesture at Cleveland fans after hitting a home run. That winter, his agents dropped him, citing “behavioral reasons.” Finally, in 2019, he was suspended on two different occasions for participating in bench-clearing brawls as a member of the Reds, including an infamous fight that occurred minutes after the news came out that he had been traded to Cleveland. Although there are some murmurs in the industry that Puig has taken criticisms of his maturity seriously, there will nonetheless remain skepticism until we actually see this play out on the field.

The talent that Yasiel Puig possesses is undeniable. So long as he can avoid controversy — and hopefully not lose the intensity that makes him one of the most exciting players in the league along the way — he will be a true asset to whichever team decides to take a chance on him. Unless he signs for a small contract, however, don’t expect the Yankees to be that team.

But there’s no reason to complain if they are: there’s no such thing as too much depth.