Direct and at ease, his countenance at once representative and antipodal, an air of confrontation peeking through his face, Yasiel Puig stares back from the cover of the 2019 Cincinnati Reds Yearbook Magazine. His gaze is sure and unwavering, his mouth set in a Mona Lisa line betraying just a hint of a secret, his powerful shoulders ever-so-slightly forward leaning, arms crossed atop the knob of his powerful bat, guns at-the-ready, his message clear, unmistakable: I’m here to do damage.
From the moment he arrived this winter, stocking-capped on the frozen concrete of Crosley Terrace, ready to do battle with the polar vortex as if it were just another National League Central opponent, he’s owned this town. He’s wooed the organization and the city the way John Cusack once wooed Ione Skye. Whether it’s hanging out with the kids at the Reds Youth Academy, singing the praises of fellow Cuban Tony Perez, who in Puig’s words, “helped me a lot with the way to play baseball,” or playing the bat whisperer, entreating it with words and tongue to give him “something good” in the moment, the Wild Horse will do anything, say anything.
The irony is that while the enigmatic Puig has been anything but in his short stay in the Queen City, it’s Alex Wood who’s been the inscrutable one. Hidden away in rehab and baseball back fields by the curse of a recalcitrant back, Wood remains an apparition to Reds fans heading into his July 28 opening day, a handful of Goodyear photographs the only proof he is a Cincinnati Red. His performance—good or bad—will tell us very little about who he is now or who he will be going forward.
To reveal the unvarnished Wood, to get the raw facts and figures of the man who the Reds hoped to be a major part of a resurgent pitching staff, one must retreat to the Interwebs, to Baseball Reference for knowledge.
A 28-year old lefthanded starting pitcher, Robert Alexander Wood—uninspiringly nicknamed “Woodman”—was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft out of the University of Georgia by the Atlanta Braves. Quick to the majors, he began logging serious innings in 2014 before being traded to the Dodgers in 2015 and became an All Star two seasons later.
Late last season, having logged 27 starts for Los Angeles, he was unceremoniously sent to the bullpen following a bad outing at GABP, the Reds having battered him for 8 hits, banishing him from the game before he could complete 4 innings. Following the All Star break, Wood had posted a 3.17 ERA in 9 starts, but had either fallen in disfavor with the Dodgers brain trust or was simply a victim of organizational depth or circumstance.
The trade that brought Puig and Wood, et al., to the Reds and sent Homer Bailey and prospects to the Dodgers was about financial flexibility and prospect depth on one side—and hope for a better 2019 on the other. Many have suggested the Reds—losing sight of the leaders post-All Star break—could now deal Puig, Wood or Tanner Roark to replenish some of the depth that was lost when Jeter Downs and Josiah Gray were sent off to Hollywood in supporting roles to marquee names.
But the game keeps evolving and the value of certain types of players keeps changing. Free agents to be at the end of this season, Puig and Wood are rental players, and rental players are no longer held in high regard. For example, at the last two deadlines, rental players J.D. Martinez and Manny Machado each failed to bring top 100 prospects in return.
So, rather than sell erstwhile Dodger gelt for little return, they should keep them for the rest of the season, reward fans and try to add wins while building a sense of momentum heading into 2020.
Wood has been a shadow for obvious reasons, but even Puig’s presence in town feels like a way station on his inevitable journey to a bigger stage. To prevent the Wild Horse from saddling up and heading off, keeping Yasiel in red until season’s end could send a signal to an emotional player that yes, he is seen as the future of this franchise.
Of course, it will take more than emotion to keep Puig in Cincinnati.
So much money comes off the Reds’ books at the end of the season. That, and the continued development of Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle, the rehabilitation of Sonny Gray, and the arrival of Nick Senzel should provide the impetus for the ownership group to finally spend big money, while protecting prospects at all cost. Re-signing Puig is only the beginning, as the Reds have needs at shortstop, centerfield or second base, depending on what is done with Senzel, and perhaps even catcher.
The Reds still need pitching to go along with Castillo, who in my opinion hasn’t shed the training wheels. That’s not a knock on Castillo, but a realization that if the Reds want to do more than contend for a wildcard spot in 2020, they need to continue building their pitching staff at the top if they hope to match up favorably with the Dodgers, who stand in the way of anyone hoping to represent the National League in the World Series for the foreseeable future. #GetThePitching shouldn’t have been a mantra for one season, only to be now deemed mission accomplished. It should be the mantra at each season’s end, as pitching remains the most important cog of a baseball team—and the most fickle.
And because you can’t have too much pitching, I’d heed Chad Dotson’s advice in a recent Cincinnati Magazine article and attempt to sign Alex Wood to a team friendly contract, reap the benefits of the drop in Wood’s value and hope he returns to form, which feels like a #2 guy in most rotations.
But back to Puig. There are plenty of OLD right fielders who are free agents this winter. Settling for a 35-year old Jon Jay or 36-year old Nick Markakis is not the kind of move you make when the market for young right fielders is thin and you already have one in Puig, who will be 29 in 2020.
People are eager to declare trade winners and losers—and the Reds surrendered valuable prospects in Downs and Gray. But, if the Reds can keep Puig and Wood in the fold, the Reds may find themselves big winners when all is said and done.
The transition from Dodger Blue to Cincinnati Pantone 199 has always felt temporal, fleeting. Here’s hoping that by next season at this time, The Wild Horse and the Woodman remain in Cincinnati and have the rest of the National League Central seeing Red.