Puig to a Perfection

Kevin Lange shares his latest thoughts in this week's Game On

Kevin Lange          What’s a reward without risking? What’s praise without pressure to earn it? Well, when you’re 23-32, looking up at rock bottom of your division, you’ll find yourself in line with Mike Tyson at a poker table: scurrying for the opportunity to risk.

With the Los Angeles Dodgers pulling up no-name, straight Spanish-speaking Yasiel Puig from the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts, a minor league team in Tennessee, bets were all on. A freak of nature now batting .392 for the Dodgers, making Tarzan look athletically diminutive as a playmaker in right field, a risk paid off came in return. It’s been six weeks since the Dodgers signed Puig, and 29 G.M.s have been flipping desks ever since.

The Dodgers basically won the lottery off a single scratch-off ticket. They’ve gotten the benefit of the doubt, and Puig’s cherishing every benefit of time on the field. The dude’s a Corvette being rented for a few nickels. Despite it, he’s just grateful to be brought up to the big show. (Spanish majors, I need your help translating a quote to insert here…)

We talked about a risk on this guy? Now the risk is throwing anything across the stomach of the Dodgers’ second batter in the lineup. Though residing to walk him may seem safe and sound—a loud sound, at that, for as many ‘boo’s it stirs—it puts a greater burden on any pitcher, each more hopeless than Paris Hilton without money, to peer through every movement at the jet-footed Puig on first. Through 37 games, he’s even stole five bases. Given that, it’s scary to consider his on-base percentage is at .424, third best in the league—at least we’d all think to be astonished until we see these rattled off: at this rate, from the start of July, had Puig played all 93 games for the Dodgers to this point, he’d be at 28 home runs and 59 RBIs. To put that in perspective, the league leader in home runs, Chris Davis, has made 37 people’s baseball collections one greater. Miguel Cabrera’s league-leading RBI count? 95. Not too far behind for a 22-year old.

Oh, and get this: In not even his first month, his 44 hits were the second-highest total for a player’s first calendar month in MLB history behind only Joe DiMaggio. ‘Stardom’ in the dictionary now just says, ‘See Yasiel Puig.’ And to think this guy is making $2 million for the season, only half the league average. It’s comical, really, to see some of the players crammed at the end of the dugout, stuffed from a bucket of sunflower seeds, all there for the sake of roster depth, and still racking in more stacks than the guy making, not his appetite, but the stat sheet stuffed every day.

Puig’s story sounds all too familiar to that of Jeremy Lin’s, who just the same was rescued from a minor league team in late 2011. Hitting the ground sprinting, Lin’s stint with the New York Knicks catapulted his rising career as an NBA point guard. In a matter of a month, as we all know, he became a Linternational icon. The iconic appeal helps when Lin rhymes with the beginning of countless words that an ‘L’ can be put in front with. We’ve heard them all: Linsanity, Linning, Linfinity, Bal-Lin, Linteresting, Lincredible, Lindestructible, you get the picture. Now try it with the name Yasiel Puig. Like punishing pitchers like he does, it’s harder than it sounds.

This is where you’ll notice the eye-catching difference, the drop-off from Puig’s supremacy. Having entered from the D-League already after the NBA season had gotten underway, Lin’s shot at being in the Rising Stars game on All-Star weekend, a game for newer players in the league and a blow-off to the actual All-Star game, was tarnished, but his stats over-qualified. And that was exactly the problem.

Would it be fair to take away someone else’s roster spot, worked all in the NBA to earn at that point, to let Lin play?

Alike, Puig has faced the same issue this past week, though this hasn’t been over any meaningless, clear-out-the-way-for-another-highlight every other play Rising Stars game; this is where fate, home field advantage for the World Series, lies between the AL and NL teams in the 2013 MLB All-Star game. The final fan vote for the NL roster came down to Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves and, you guessed it, Yasiel Puig. Happened to be a record-setting turnout in votes (33.2 million). Like we didn’t have enough records in the neighborhood of being rewritten this season! So do we bring in exploding hype—which can’t find a name any less horrific than ‘Puig-mania’—or bring in the more respectable steady numbers throughout over twice more games played than Puig?

Well, Lin got to play in February of 2012, but last Thursday, Puig found out he will not after being edged out by Freeman’s fans…or, rather, baseball fans in general—for all honest rationalizations would agree—that experience, a greater qualification, deserves to deliver its justice over a streak of success that sparks a media fuse. Puig’s brought the Dodgers, who have dodged success all season, back into stride on their way out of a deficit the economy would cringe at. Now 47-46, 24-14 since Puig was given his due shot, Los Angeles’ sports fans at least have something to feel good about these days. But 24-14 in a sport far from capable of having one single player carry a team like we see in basketball, even football…? How’s that for worthiness to be voted for, fans?

Linsanity carried on that season, but when a torn meniscus plagued him late in the season, things seemed to fall apart for the Knicks heading into the playoffs. Getting bounced in the first round by the Heat, New York had to say goodbye to the 2011-12 season and, several months later, Jeremy Lin.

It was then the fight of colossal money offers and unwillingness from New York to resign unsure talent with a price they couldn’t afford to match with other teams. Among them, the Houston Rockets.

Fast forward to this winter, we’ll presumably have Lin in his second season with Houston, and Puig will be in close to the same position as Lin was last summer. Can and will the Dodgers, with the highest payroll in baseball hurting any extra cap space, dare to consider enticing trade proposals raining in from every club across the country before Puig becomes eligible to opt out of his contract and seek arbitration at the end of next year? Are they as solid a team for the future, athletically and financially, to the extent of some of the most star-stacked, money-stashed teams in the league? Unless owner Magic Johnson has some mapped-out smooth talking up his sleeve, a persuasion to stay, I can’t believe so. And until this second half of the season plays out, all the free agency chatter can wait.

Sure, the fans passed up on Puig this week. But I can tell you who sure as hell won’t this offseason: those 29 G.M.s who did six weeks ago.