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Don’t know about you, but I’m pumped about Yasiel Puig

Los Angeles Dodgers' Juan Uribe, right, greets Dodgers' Yasiel Puig, left, at the plate next to Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann, center, after Uribe hit a two-run home run to score Puig in the fourth inning in Game 3 of the National League division baseball series Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Los Angeles Dodgers' Juan Uribe, right, greets Dodgers' Yasiel Puig, left, at the plate next to Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann, center, after Uribe hit a two-run home run to score Puig in the fourth inning in Game 3 of the National League division baseball series Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Credit: Mark J. Terrill

Credit: Mark J. Terrill

To borrow a phrase from David Bowie, I’ve had a strange fascination with Yasiel Puig since … well, since I first heard his name. That was in the summer of 2013. He’d just been summoned to the majors by the Dodgers, who’d signed the Cuban defector the year before. Over his first month in the bigs, he drove in 16 runs, hit five homers, stole four bases, batted .436 and amassed an OPS of 1.180.

He was 22. Even Dodgers watchers, who’ve seen their share of excellence since the club moved west, were agog. This was Fernando Mania all over again, with one difference: Puig played every night, as opposed to every fifth day, and darned if he didn’t work a new wonder with each start. Even the legendary Vin Scully, who’d seen everything a dozen times, hadn’t seen anything quite like this. Charley Steiner, Scully’s fellow Dodger broadcaster, described Puig’s feats in tones expressing equal parts awe and astonishment.

The Braves, you might recall, were the second big-league team Puig faced. He went 8-for-18 over four nights, hitting a grand slam in the first game and a tying homer off Paul Maholm in the second. (The Dodgers won 2-1 in 10 innings.) Maholm, possessed of tender sensibilities, wasn’t impressed. “I got him out easy the first two times,” he said. “I missed with a curveball and he hit a home run. He’s hot, and that happens. But let’s not crown him a Hall of Famer yet.”

Maholm threw his last major-league pitch in 2014. (For the Dodgers, FYI.) It’s possible you’ve forgotten he ever pitched for the Braves, or for anybody: His career record was 77-100. He was, however, right about Puig. At a time when the young outfielder was being mentioned in the same breathless breath as another L.A.-based outfielder of a similar age, it seemed unthinkable that such a raging talent could ever become just another guy. But here we are.

Mike Trout will turn 29 next month. His career WAR, as calculated by Baseball-Reference, is 72.8. Puig will turn 30 in December. His career WAR is 18.9. Of that total, roughly half – 9.6 – was compiled in 2013, when he finished second to the late Jose Fernandez in the National League rookie of the year voting, and 2014, when he made his sole All-Star appearance.

Puig remained a Dodgers regular through 2018, having been part of six consecutive NL West titles. Of his five postseason home runs, three came in the 2017 and 2018 World Series. He got the second-biggest hit in the 2013 NLDS close-out game against the Braves, leading off the eighth inning of Game 4 with a double off David Carpenter. Juan Uribe followed with the game-winning homer, also off Carpenter. (With a one-run lead and six outs left in an elimination game, Fredi Gonzalez left Craig Kimbrel standing, arms crossed, in the bullpen. The Braves would never work another postseason game under Fredi G.)

The Dodgers traded Puig to the Reds – Alex Wood was part of the deal – after the 2018 season. The Reds traded him to Cleveland at the deadline last July. Just after word of the deal leaked, Puig was a large part of a brawl involving the Reds and the Pirates, teams that had been exchanging unpleasantries/beanballs all season. The list of players who’ve been ejected AFTER being traded elsewhere might well begin and end with Puig. He became a free agent in November. He remained one until agreeing to terms, pending a physical, with the Braves on Tuesday.

Not going to lie: I’m excited about this. Puig remains a major talent, and the opt-out of Nick Markakis left the Braves – especially over a shortened season with the DH in full force – short of outfielders. That Puig will be working for his fourth team in two years tells us he has lately rendered himself indispensable to no one. That said, he has hit at least 23 homers over each of the past three seasons. (Then again, lots of people have hit lots of home runs.)

In the grand scheme, the worst thing that happened to Puig was him being so good – darn near great, if we’re being honest – so soon. His excesses were never corrected. He can still run a mile to make a fabulous catch and then miss the cutoff man by 20 feet. He hasn’t hit above .267 since 2014; he has mustered an on-base percentage of more than .327 once since 2014. He’s very fast, but he’s not an adept baserunner. Of 135 qualifying MLB hitters in 2019, he ranked 94th in FanGraphs’ Weighted Runs Created Plus.

To check Puig’s career numbers is to see a player who topped out at 23 and has been nothing special since. To recall the Puig of 2013 is to believe – or, more precisely, to want to believe – there’s more to be had. This is another case of Alex Anthopoulos buying on personal history: Jose Bautista didn’t work out; Josh Donaldson did. The Braves’ general manager worked for the Dodgers in 2016 and 2017; he wasn’t on hand for peak Puig, so he’s surely not expecting that. But still.

The worst that can happen is for Puig to play most of the 60 scheduled games – assuming any scheduled games are played – and be a serviceable Brave. (It’s a one-year deal.) The best is that Puig reminds us why we came to notice him in the first place. It was on Nov. 25, 2015, that this correspondent implored the then-tanking Braves to toss their beleaguered fans a bone and trade for the erratic but exciting … Yasiel Puig. Nearly five years later, here he is.

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