For the first time since 2013, the year he debuted in the major leagues and created outsized expectations for his future, Yasiel Puig entered this off-season without a firm grasp on a starting job for the Dodgers.
His performance in 2016 cost him ownership of right field and reduced him to a part-time role for the playoffs. After years of different off-season mandates — Behave yourself! Lose weight! — Puig is approaching spring training with a more basic goal: Play better.
“I want to be a starter again, whether it’s here or anywhere else,” Puig said through an interpreter at a Coffee Bean in Studio City, on the first day of the team’s annual community tour. “I’m going to continue working. I want to be a better person, in and out of the field, and I’m hoping I can work toward that.”
The Dodgers have been willing to discuss trading Puig, and tried to move him before the Aug. 1 deadline. But with the team reporting to Camelback Ranch in less than a month, it appears Puig will remain on the roster.
Puig finished last season on a relatively high note. He performed well in September after returning from a monthlong stint in the minors. The Dodgers allowed Josh Reddick to depart in free agency, and it was Reddick’s arrival in a trade last season that triggered Puig’s demotion.
The team could utilize platoons again in 2017. With Joc Pederson installed in center field, the Dodgers could use Andre Ethier and Andrew Toles against right-handed pitchers, and send Puig and Scott Van Slyke to face left-handed pitchers.
Puig, like any player, would prefer an everyday role. The team asked him to shed bulk for the second off-season in a row. Puig did look notably slimmer during his appearance on Monday, though it is difficult to gauge the utility of his frame while watching him sign autographs and fetch pastries behind the counter.
At baseball’s winter meetings in December, Manager Dave Roberts indicated the goal was for Puig to “lean out,” so he could be more flexible at the plate.
“Even before he said that, I had already made the decision to be healthier,” Puig said. “I’m conscious that I need to be at a good weight so I can run better.”
Puig said he hired a chef to cook for him to improve his diet. He said he was hitting on a daily basis, with three sessions of outdoor batting practice per week. During a trip to the Dominican Republic for his charity, he spent a week working out with Robinson Cano, the Seattle Mariners’ All-Star second baseman.
Before his demotion, Puig’s hitting took a notable dip in 2016. When the team sent him to triple-A Oklahoma City, he was the owner of a career-worst .706 on-base plus slugging percentage. Facing mostly left-handed pitchers upon his return, Puig hit .281 with a .900 OPS during the final month.
“I just thought I was very anxious to meet all the expectations,” Puig said. “That’s something that I’ve cleared out of my mind. I asked God to help me to go out there, to respect my teammates and respect myself. That way, I can better myself.”
His off-season also included a stop in Curacao for Kenley Jansen’s wedding. He attended along with Van Slyke and Justin Turner. Jansen has said the trio’s presence helped convince him to take a five-year, $80-million deal with the Dodgers over slightly more lucrative offers from Miami and Washington.
“We tried to encourage him,” Puig said. “We tried to help him make the right decision. He likes L.A., because of his family, his daughters here. We’re just happy that he was able to make that decision.”