The Rise of Puig (Is It Mess With Dre Day?)

Yasiel Puig is set to make his Major League Debut tonight against the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium. (Image Source: Yahoo Sports)

Yasiel Puig, he of the .517 spring batting average, will finally make his official Major League Debut tonight at Dodger Stadium at 7:10 p.m. against the San Diego Padres.

Around Los Angeles, on the internet, via text messages, and around water coolers and breakfast tables, the discussion of the Cuban Phenom, who was hitting .313 with 8 homers and 26 RBIs in 167 plate appearances for the Chatanooga Lookouts, is running rampant.

Speculation abounds about Puig.  While some question his maturity, the most optimistic of Dodger fans are comparing Puig to Angels Sophomore Sensation Mike Trout, who took the league by storm when he was called up in early May last year and ran away with the American League Rookie of the Year Award while garnering serious consideration for the MVP award ultimately won by Triple Crown Winner Miguel Cabrera.  Others compare Puig to another recent Cuban sensation, Oakland Athletics outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who has also enjoyed a tremendous amount of early success and has become a fan favorite not only in Oakland but around the league.

In a season that has been marred by injuries, the Dodgers hope that Puig will have a similar impact that Trout had in playing the Angels back into contention and Cespedes had in helping to lead the Athletics to a divisional championship and a playoff berth.  As if to play into the potential impact of Puig, a team social media spokesperson snapped a photo of Puig, musle-bound in a tight t-shirt and carrying one of the heaviest-looking duffel bags I’ve ever seen, and quickly uploaded it to social media.  The picture quickly made its rounds among fans.  Yasiel Puig, smiling, self-confident, the young man who defected from Cuba to come be the savior of the 2013 season.

If successful, Puig could help turn the Dodgers fortunes around this season, get the team back into the division race, and garner some serious consideration (along with teammate Hyun-Jin Ryu) for National League Rookie Of  The Year Award honors.  However, there is also the possibility that Puig, like Matt Kemp, could have a hot start that sees him hit very well early on then have difficulties the rest of the year.  Of course, Kemp has since gone on to be one of the best players of the game, his struggles early this season as he’s recovered from a shoulder surgery not withstanding, and it is likely that Puig could, much like Kemp, recover from any rookie season struggles he may encounter.

Of course, if Puig is the answer to all that ails the Dodgers, then a new question comes up: who do the Dodgers make the odd man out in their outfield upon the return of veterans Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp?

The most obvious short-term answer would appear to be to send Scott Van Slyke back to the minors.  However, Van Slyke has made quite the statement since getting his big league callup.  While his batting average sits in the .240 range, Van Slyke has also been the Dodgers’ lone consistent power threat this season, hitting 4 homers and 5 doubles in 46 official at-bats while driving in 9 runs, and could be valuable as a 4th outfielder and a bat off the bench once the Dodgers return to full strength.

That leaves Andre Ethier.

Andre Ethier gives the cold stare after being ejected from a game. Could Ethier soon be giving this stare to Ned Colletti on his way out of town? (Animated GIF Source: USA Today)

Andre Ethier is now the longest-tenured Dodger, having made his Dodger debut early in the 2006 season after being acquired from Oakland in a trade that netted the Athletics talented-but-troubled outfielder Milton Bradley, who is best remembered during his time with the Dodgers for throwing a bag of baseballs onto the field and grabbing a bottle from a fan and smashing it on a railing.  While Bradley had some success in stints with the Athletics, Padres, Rangers, Cubs and Mariners after leaving the Dodgers, Ethier has been a constant presence in the Dodger lineup, hitting consistently in the .300 range while putting up good power numbers and driving runners in consistently year in and year out.

There is no doubt that Andre Ethier has earned his place as one of the most popular Dodgers amongst the fans with his play over the years, often drawing louder cheers at the stadium than outfield counterpart and face-of-the-franchise Matt Kemp.

The 2013 season, however,  has been a frustrating one so far for Ethier.  A noticeably slower bat (that mysteriously seemed to speed up for one game in Milwaukee where he collected a homer and a triple), a sinking batting average, and criticism from manager Don Mattingly seem to all be contributing to a swell of sentiment that Andre Ethier is on his way out in Los Angeles.  Mattingly’s recent criticism of Ethier is nothing new: the two were said to have clashed down the stretch of the 2011 season at a time when teammates Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw were on the rise, and Mattingly also has been quoted as saying that Andre Ethier “gave away” as many as 100 at-bats last year with his approach at the plate, meaning he believed that if Ethier had been giving his best effort, he could have had a much better offensive season in 2012 than he did.  However, the drop-off in Ethier’s game has been significant, and while it’s likely at age 31 that he can adjust and come back, there’s speculation that it won’t happen in Los Angeles.

A question that must be asked is, if the Dodgers move Ethier, where will he go?  Many fans discussing Ethier on social media networks have speculated that he could be headed to the Boston Red Sox to be united with Dustin Pedroia who is documented as being one of Ethier’s best friends.  MLB Trade Rumors speculates that the New York Mets may also be an option for Ethier if the Dodgers are willing to absorb a large portion of his contract, though they do not go so far as to speculate who the Mets might ask for in return.

What is very real is that there is a definitive rift between Ethier and Manager Don Mattingly, who is reportedly on the Hot Seat, though the organization has not said that Mattingly will be fired any time soon.  The fact that the team has played somewhat better since Mattingly’s criticisms of Ethier and that it tends to do well whenever Ethier is replaced in the lineup with Scott Van Slyke seems to play toward Mattingly’s favor: if the lineup isn’t producing with Ethier in it, but is producing with him on the bench, it adds legitimacy to Mattingly’s  claims over the last few seasons (both directly and indirectly) that Ethier is not contributing on offense and may be a part of the problem.

Saving Ethier’s tenure in Los Angeles at the moment is the fact that both Kemp and left fielder Carl Crawford are on the disabled list with hamstring issues, and the fact that the team does not appear confident in Van Slyke as a long-term option as an every day starter in the outfield.  Since the other outfield options for the Dodgers are Jerry Hairston, Jr., Skip Schumaker, and putting prospect Joc Pederson on the roster and calling him up, it is not likely that the Dodgers will actively shop Ethier right now.  It can be assumed, however, that upon the returns of Crawford and Kemp that if Yasiel Puig proves to be an effective option for the Dodgers that Ethier may find himself in serious trade talks and possibly with another team.

It could be that “Mess With Dre Day” is just around the corner for the Dodgers and that new directions might be necessary for this 2013 edition of the Dodgers to have a chance to play October baseball this year.

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