Column: Time is Perfect for Red Sox to Sign Yasiel Puig

Sep 3, 2019; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians right fielder Yasiel Puig (66) celebrates after hitting a single against the Chicago White Sox in the first inning at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is back.

Well, sort of.

On Tuesday, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred mandated a 60-game schedule that will require players to report to Spring Training on July 1 in preparation for a July 23 or 24 Opening Day.

There will be a universal designated hitter but no expanded postseason, although none of those rules would help teams survive as players get plucked out of camp when positive coronavirus tests come to light. This is why the league has allowed for teams to have up to 60 players on their active roster for 2020. They’ll have their 40-man roster, as well as a taxi squad of players who will play if and when they’re needed.

As for the Boston Red Sox, they had 68 players remaining in camp (including Chris Sale and Dustin Pedroia) at the time of the shutdown, meaning they’ll likely need to cut some weight while they prepare to return to baseball glory this season.

If you look at the list of outfielders in general, you’ll notice that there’s not a lot of quality proven depth outside of Kevin Pillar and maybe Rusney Castillo. In translation: there’s a legitimate need for offense in the Red Sox outfield, and who better to fill that void than former Dodgers, Reds, and Indians outfielder Yasiel Puig?

Puig is a name that has circulated in the Boston rumor mill time and time again, with the most recent being 2018. Many of those reports seemed to revolve around a Jackie Bradley Jr.-for-Puig swap, but none of that came to fruition.

2019 was a down year for the Cuban outfielder, who posted a wRC+ of just 101, a wOBA of .330, a slugging percentage well below his career average, and just 1.2 wins above replacement. He did post the second-most home runs for his career (24) and notched new career-highs in runs batted in (84) and stolen bases (19), but all in all, it was a year to forget for the former young phenom.

So why does he make sense for the Red Sox?

For starters, the team saved a significant amount of money by trading away Mookie Betts and David Price during the offseason, as well as drafting guys for under-slot money. They also didn’t have a second-round pick, thus saving them even more money. As a result, they have roughly $8 million in estimated tax space (per Spotrac), which should be more than enough to retain Puig for the remainder of an already-shortened 2020 campaign.

Further, 2020 will be about strength in numbers. Having as many above replacement-level players as possible should greatly help your chances of capturing the World Series title. While it might be viewed differently, it still counts and gives your community a reason to be happy during this trying time. The way the team is constructed, they don’t have a single player with a career wRC+ above 109; Andrew Benintendi‘s is 109, but he hasn’t had consecutive seasons with a 109-plus wRC+ to this point.

On the other hand, Puig’s career wRC+ is 124, and he’s only had two seasons fall below 117 (2016 and 2019). Yes, the most recent number of 101 can be a major turn-off, especially since he’s in the midst of his prime and, to this point, appears to be a player who peaked early. However, the fact remains that he’s a far more reliable and proven commodity than players like Cesar Puello, Jarren Duran, or Marcus Wilson … especially when you factor in how much better he was during the summer months of the season (.293/.359/.494 with a 120 wRC+ and a .359 wOBA in 398 plate appearances).

His defense isn’t stellar, but it’s not nearly damning enough to get worked up over (-1.2 UZR/150, zero DRS, zero OAA in 2019).

Lastly, attention follows Puig wherever he goes. In a sport that’s losing its popularity, and in a market as angry as Boston’s following the cataclysmic offseason they’ve had, having a player as box office appealing and exciting as Yasiel Puig—even for 25 to 30 games of the 60—does wonders for attracting eyes, especially in the new era of fans who love home runs, bat flips, and attitude.

Yasiel Puig remains a free agent as we approach Spring Training 2.0. There’s no way a team doesn’t take a flier on him, and that team should be the Boston Red Sox, especially if they want to hold true to their statement of “re-tooling while remaining in the hunt.”

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