There are a lot of problems with this year’s Dodgers team. A giant payroll can do a lot for a team, but it still takes time to plug a roster littered with holes like recent Dodgers teams have been, especially with recent trends that have even the smallest market teams locking up their stars before they hit free agency.
But at least they have Yasiel Puig. Selecting just one play from his first week in the majors doesn’t do it justice, but if one does the most justice to his now apparent talent, it’s his grand slam from Thursday’s game against Atlanta:
Puig’s swing isn’t violent, and yet he easily beat the notorious Chavez Ravine marine layer to go opposite field for the grand slam, a rare occurrence at Dodger Stadium.
It’s a much-needed jolt for what’s been an otherwise lifeless Dodgers team. The Dodgers’ payroll shot up to $216 million this season. They sit at 27-35 and 7.5 games back of Arizona in the National League West. Baseball Prospectus gives them a 3.2 percent chance at reaching the playoffs.
It shows money can’t always be a quick fix. The Dodgers had gaping holes in the infield last season and the talent to plug those holes wasn’t available through free agency this offseason. What looked like superior starting pitching depth has been riddleld by injuries, something no sum of money could realistically fix.
But if you want to know why the Dodgers’ money will start winning games sooner rather than later, look no further than Puig. According to reports, the Dodgers never saw Puig play in an actual game — he had only played two games outside of Cuba before signing, according to Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com.
The Dodgers saw enough in workouts to commit a seven-year, $42 million sum to Puig. At just 21 years old and with the equivalent of just about one year of seasoning in the Cuban professional league — generally considered equivalent to the talent level of Class Low-A baseball — Puig wasn’t guaranteed to even in the majors by the third year of the contract. For many teams — arguably most teams — such a blind commitment would be considered irresponsible, and perhaps gravely so.
The Dodgers will pay Puig just $2 million this year (on top of a $12 million signing bonus). According to both fWAR (0.7) and bWAR (1.1), Puig has already been worth the money. Much like the contracts handed to Yoenis Cespedes and Aroldis Chapman, Puig’s salary won’t ramp up until the last few years of the deal. Puig won’t earn more than $5 million until 2016, and his deal tops out at $7.5 million in 2018.
It’s a similar deal as the one handed out to one of the Dodgers’ other rare bright spots, Korean import Hyun-Jin Ryu. Ryu has been excellent in his first 12 starts, as he owns a 2.72 ERA and a 3.08 FIP backed up by 73 strikeouts in 79 1/3 innings. The Dodgers committed just under $52 million to Ryu, including a $26 million posting fee. Ryu will make just $2.5 million this year and his contract, which runs through 2018, tops out at just $7 million.
Both Puig and Ryu, coming from leagues with little representation in North American professional baseball, were wildly difficult to predict. A scenario in which both busted — $97 million flushed down the toilets at Dodger Stadium — was far from out of the question. But those are the kinds of lottery tickets the Dodgers can afford now, the kinds of bets the Dodgers are privileged to make.
As Los Angeles reaps the benefits of both these young players, it only gives more power to the rest of that gigantic payroll. Money that would have been used on another outfielder and another starter can be consolidated over the next season or two to fix the holes that are causing this year’s problems as Puig and Ryu join with Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez and Matt Kemp to make a formidable core.
Puigmania isn’t going to get the Dodgers back in contention by itself. The club still only scored 3.1 runs per game this week with a .230/.274/.378 batting line. Non-Puig performers hit .196/.246/.293. The Dodgers have 16 players on the disabled list, including who many thought would be their best hitter in Matt Kemp and their second-best starter in Zack Greinke. A 7.5-game deficit isn’t insurmountable, but they also must surpass the other three teams still ahead of them. A comeback from this point would be nothing short of remarkable.
But even in the NL West cellar, the Dodgers’ money is still talking. The successes of Puig and Ryu come from the kind of large, risky investments big money teams have the luxury of making, and they give the Dodgers a future worth looking forward to.