As we were exploring the Reds’ trade deadline options last week here in the digital pages of Cincinnati Magazine, I had this to say when it comes to the most interesting potential trade chip in Cincinnati’s arsenal:
There may be some interest in (Yasiel) Puig, but if he’s traded that leaves a Wild Horse-sized hole in the outfield. Plus, trading him would be a public relations disaster. Unless they’re overwhelmed by an offer, the Reds might be wise to let Puig help the club fight for the playoffs while wooing him with a contract extension to keep him in town for the next few seasons. And if Puig decides not to re-sign with the Reds, the team could make him a qualifying offer—essentially a one-year deal likely in the neighborhood of $18 million—and accept the compensation when he signs elsewhere.
All of that remains true, but there’s some context that I wanted to add. If you look at Yasiel Puig’s season numbers, they look fine: .263/.307/.509 with 22 homers and a 105 OPS+ (essentially 5 percent above league average). He’s struck out too much, hasn’t walked enough, and has been worth only 1.3 wins above replacement so far. That puts him in a tie for 124th best in the majors, along with such luminaries as Robbie Grossman and Omar Narvaez. (Also in that group at 1.3 WAR: Bryce Harper and two 2019 All-Stars, Charlie Blackmon and Hunter Pence. And that leads nicely into my next point, which is that Puig is actually pretty good.)
Those numbers, however, underestimate just how valuable Puig has been for most of the season. Always a notoriously slow starter—his career slash line in April is .233/.303/.389—he was hitting just .178/.211/.327 with four home runs on May 2, after 31 games (essentially 20 percent of the season). Even as late as June 9, Puig’s wRC+ was a paltry 58, though he had clearly begun to emerge from his slump.
In the last two-plus months (since May 3), Puig is hitting .305/.355/.601 with 18 home runs. His wRC+ of 141 during that span is 14th-best in the National League and compares favorably with guys like Anthony Rizzo and Freddie Freeman, if a cut below the very best in the league (Kris Bryant, 167; Christian Yelich, 166; Charlie Blackmon, 161; Cody Bellinger, 158). I’ll take those numbers from my starting right fielder.
If we zero in on just the last month, the numbers begin to pop off the chart. In fact, since June 10, Puig has been among the very best hitters in the entire major leagues, slashing .373/.420/.775 with a 199 wRC+. That’s right up there with Mike Trout, aka the greatest player who ever lived.
So what changed? Well, Puig has been making better contact on every single type of pitch, thanks to much better discipline at the plate over the last couple of months. In essence, he stopped swinging at pitches he has difficulty handling and consequently started hammering pitches that were in his hot zones. (If you want to go deeper into the weeds on the changes Puig has made at the plate as the season has progressed, I’d recommend you read this piece by Ben Clemens over at FanGraphs. It contains a lot of nerdspeak, but it’s a really great read if you’re interested in the analytics, as I am.)
What we’re left with is the fact that Puig has actually been pretty darn good (forgive my salty language) for almost the entirety of his tenure in Cincinnati. That doesn’t really change the calculus here for the Reds as the trade deadline approaches, but it might make the stakes a little higher.
There are a bunch of different ways the Reds could approach their decision-making when it comes to Puig’s contract status. But permit me to reiterate this one incontrovertible fact: If the Reds trade the Wild Horse at the deadline, a large segment of Cincinnati’s fan base will revolt. In addition, the hole that it will open in a lineup already struggling to score runs would be massive since, as we’ve seen above, Puig has been one of the few productive hitters on the club. Over the last two and a half months, he has been the club’s best hitter far and away.
Cincinnati’s front office should certainly be attempting to swing a bigger deal that may or may not include Puig, as I recommended last week. Given his hot hitting for two-thirds of the season, it’s possible that he could return something as trade bait. If Puig can be a part of a deal that brings back a good young hitter who’ll be around for a few years, you have to consider pulling the trigger.
On the other hand, if the Reds are going to continue to make a push toward remaining competitive the rest of the season, I don’t see how they can trade Puig (absent a blockbuster deal). He’s the straw that stirs the drink for the Reds right now, and I’d be happy with keeping him around all season and attempting to sign him to a contract extension. And when I say the Reds should explore a new contract with Puig, I’m saying that the Reds should be willing to pay him the market rate for his services for the next four or five years.
Will that be expensive? Maybe. But Puig is 28 and could be expected to be a centerpiece of Reds lineups for the foreseeable future if they can keep him around. He’s fun to watch and, oh yeah, he’s pretty good. Cincinnati isn’t going to convince Puig to stick around by low-balling him when the free agent market is just a couple of months away for him. If they can’t swing that deal because he’s determined to test the free agent waters, the Reds should make him a qualifying offer for 2020 and see what happens from there.
Choices, choices. If the Reds choose to trade Puig, it’s understandable. If they don’t trade him and Puig decides he doesn’t want to play here next year, that’s unfortunate, but what can you do? But if the Cincinnati Reds choose to let him walk because he’s going to be out of the club’s price range, fans should be justifiably upset. At some point, a team that wants to get into the championship discussion has to pay for good players. And Yasiel Puig is good.
What will the Reds do: trade Puig or go all-out in an attempt to secure his services long-term? I’m hoping for the latter. In fact, I’m not sure what the Reds could do right now to energize the fan base more than signing one of the most popular athletes in Cincinnati to a contract extension, letting Puig continue to stir things up as the Reds begin a multi-year assault on the National League Central division.
Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. He wrote about the 1970s Reds as part of the magazine’s “10 Events That Shaped Cincinnati” package. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.