July 15, 2020

Is Yasiel Puig the Missing Piece for the Atlanta Braves?

As Major League Baseball waited during an indefinite hiatus to see if there would be a 2020 season, outfielder Yasiel Puig was arguably the only noteworthy free agent without a team. Nearly two weeks into March, the Cuban had yet to find a new team after finishing the 2019 campaign in a playoff chase with the Cleveland Indians. When the shutdown hit, Puig was forced to sit and wait for months before even having an opportunity to sign with a team. That waiting ended on Tuesday when Puig agreed to a deal with the Atlanta Braves.

For the Braves, the fact that Puig was still available 10 days before their season-opener against the New York Mets could end up being one of the most important moments of their season.

The Braves badly need extra offensive help and a capable outfielder. Barring a trade under such unusual circumstances, Puig was the best option available to them. With Puig reportedly having other offers, the Braves should consider themselves lucky that he agreed to come to Atlanta.

While he’s a bit of a wild card, Puig could end up being the missing piece for the Braves in 2020.

Puig Plugs Some Big Holes

On the surface, the signing of Puig looks like a direct response to veteran outfielder Nick Markakis deciding to sit out the season because of concerns over COVID-19. However, Markakis opting out of the season isn’t Atlanta’s only concern. The Braves also have to replace the production of third baseman Josh Donaldson, who was an integral part of their lineup last year before signing with the Minnesota Twins over the winter. On top of that, Freddie Freeman isn’t a lock to be in the lineup on opening day after testing positive for the coronavirus. Those are also factors that gave the Braves a need for a player like Puig this close to the season.

The loss of Markakis created a profound lack of depth in Atlanta’s outfield. The way it stands, Marcell Ozuna — who was signed over the winter to help replace Donaldson’s bat — will be the primary left fielder. Ronald Acuna Jr. is also a safe bet to be in the lineup every day. That leaves Ender Inciarte and Adam Duvall to platoon in the final outfield spot. However, the Braves have little outfield depth beyond those four players. 

With Duvall being a part-time player at best and Inciarte’s offense dropping off the past two seasons, the Atlanta outfield wasn’t exactly solid outside of Acuna and Ozuna. 

The Braves needed one more proven player to shore things up. With Acuna being a capable center fielder, a bonafide right fielder like Puig is the perfect fit.

Plus, with the DH being used full-time by the National League this season, it doesn’t hurt to have an extra bat around.

The addition of Puig will give the Braves more versatility in their outfield and for the DH spot where Atlanta had no obvious candidate.

It's a Low-Risk, High-Reward Move

Obviously, if the Braves had known at the start of the offseason that Markakis wouldn’t be available, Atlanta might have approached things differently. Puig isn’t exactly a like-for-like replacement, as Atlanta loses a left-handed bat to help balance out the lineup. But under the circumstances, it’s worthwhile to take a chance on Puig. Despite a complicated past, the mercurial outfielder is close to what could be considered a five-tool player. He’ll provide power, energy and quality defense, which are all valuable traits that the Braves might not get from Inciarte and Duvall.

Perhaps more importantly, Puig has something to prove and should be more motivated to perform this season than at any point since his rookie season. He held out for most of the winter in hopes of signing a multi-year contract. Instead, he’s had to settle for a pillow contract and a return to the open market next winter. Puig will no doubt be eager to prove that he’s worth such a contract. 

It’s also worth noting that Puig isn’t far removed from being an above-average hitter. He posted an OPS over .800 in both 2017 and 2018, hitting a total of 51 home runs. Puig also finished the 2019 campaign strong in Cleveland, hitting .297 with an OPS of .800 over 49 games.

It’s not far-fetched to think that Puig can return to the form he had early in his career with free agency looming.

Every Little Bit Counts

The biggest reason why the Braves signing Puig is worthwhile is that every little bit will count in a 60-game season. Even in a full season, Atlanta would surely be in for a long fight in a division in which four of the five teams have serious postseason aspirations. A year ago, the Braves won the NL East by four games, and this year the race could be even closer because of the shortened season. The Wild Card race could be just as tight if the Braves fail to win the division. In a 60-game season, every game carries great importance, leaving little margin for error.

Ultimately, the Braves signing Puig is all about leaving no stone unturned. They could probably get through the season without him, but adding Puig to their roster gives them a few extra cards to play. In any given game, Puig’s power or defense could end up being the difference between winning and losing.

If the NL East ends up being as close as it looks on paper before the season, come late September, the Braves will be happy that signed Puig at the 11th hour.

UPDATE: Thanks for reading, but, unfortunately, Puig tested positive for coronavirus and will not sign with the Braves. 

Photo: Getty Images