Yasiel Puig stared into the distance. He pursed his lips and contemplated his response.
He clearly didn’t like the question, which was basically this: How did he feel about no longer being considered an essential part of the Dodgers?
The previously carefree cadence of his speech was replaced by something angrier, as the former All-Star outfielder said in Spanish, “I’m not concerned with what is said or asked by people like you.”
He wasn’t finished.
“I don’t listen to that, what we could call, in my country, stupid commentary,” he said. “I’m focused on my work, not every stupid question.”
Asked by someone else what he would consider a smart question, Puig replied, “I don’t know. You can’t hope for anything from these people. They have never asked anything intelligent, anything important.”
Puig can refer to the line of inquries however he wants, but he can’t escape the reality of his diminished place in the franchise. He’s become an afterthought.
He’s entering his fifth season in the major leagues and 26 years old, too old to still be considered a prospect. He’s coming off a season in which he batted a modest .263 with 11 home runs and 45 runs batted in.
The Dodgers used to view him as a potential savior, either on the field or at the box office, often both. But they have finally outgrown their unhealthy codependent relationship with him.
With Corey Seager already regarded as the one of the top offensive players in the league, the Dodgers don’t have to count on Puig to bat in the middle of their lineup. As a legimate World Series contender, they don’t have to use him to sell tickets.
Never have the Dodgers been less reliant on him.
If he hits, great. If he doesn’t, oh well. They can turn to one of their million other outfielders.
The Dodgers made this point to him last year after determining his production, or lack thereof, didn’t justify their continued tolerance of his clubhouse indiscretions. They first attempted to move him at the trade deadline. When they failed to do that, they banished him to triple A, bracing themselves for the possibility he would never play for their major league team again.
Andrew Friedman, the team’s president of baseball operations, described Puig’s reaction to the demotion as a “tremendous outcome.” Puig played his way back to the major leagues for the final month of the regular season and made the team’s postseason roster.
But the place to which Puig returned wasn’t the same place he left. He isn’t guaranteed a place in the starting lineup. He could be a part-time player, even a reserve. He could be traded at any minute. He could be sent down the minor leagues again.
“People have the opinions they have,” Puig said. “I continue doing my work. I came to play baseball. People are like that. They give opinions they don’t have to give.”
Up to this point in the conversation, he was saying all of the right things, about how he wanted to be a better teammate, about the lessons passed down to him from mentors such as Albert Pujols and Robinson Cano, about how he wanted to be a starter but would respect whatever decision made by Manager Dave Roberts. In other words, he was repeating everything he was saying in camp last year.
Asked if he wanted to be traded if he couldn’t regain an everyday role, he replied, “This year, I have a different mentality. I have to wait for them to give me the opportunity. I have to continue preparing. I leave that in the hands of God.”
Ever the outward optimist, Roberts spoke about how Puig was more flexible and capable of hitting inside fastballs because of his leaner frame. Puig smashed two home runs in a Friday night victory over the Texas Rangers, improving his exhibition season average to .286.
“This is as good as I’ve seen him mentally, physically,” Roberts said.
Of course, similar things were said about Puig last spring and it didn’t mean anything in the regular season, when familiar complaints about his work habits and lack of respect toward others re-emerged.
“I lost focus on the work I had to do,” Puig acknowledged. “That’s why the things that happened to me last year happened. So I’m more focused this year than before.”
There’s reason to be skeptical this year will be any different, but the Dodgers are hopeful Puig was scared straight by his demotion to the minor leagues.
“I think now it’s just a matter of sort of the trusting the process,” Roberts said. “And I say process as far as his preparation each day, getting in the cage, getting his work in the training room, on the defensive side, preparing each day, being consistent with that. I told him yesterday that if he can stay consistent with those things and the process, I’ll bet on him.”
Of course he would. Whatever the outcome, Roberts and the Dodgers will be fine.
It’s Puig who has everything to lose.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez