Dodgers offer Yasiel Puig a fresh start in 2016

Dodgers outfielders Yasiel Puig and Sott Van Slyke take batting practice before a game againsts the Padres on Aug. 21, 2014.

Dodgers outfielders Yasiel Puig and Sott Van Slyke take batting practice before a game againsts the Padres on Aug. 21, 2014.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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A lone television camera illuminated the face of Dodgers outfielder Scott Van Slyke. His grin was sheepish. His tone was contrite.

“Yeah,” Van Slyke said. “That was a mishap.”

The spotlight shone upon Van Slyke thanks to a combination of his father’s loose lips and the gravitational pull of his teammate Yasiel Puig. The topic of Puig threaded through a series of conversations with Dodgers players and officials during Saturday’s FanFest at Dodger Stadium, as a crowd of nearly 25,000 gathered to meet the latest edition of the club.

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Even on a roster full of big names, few players draw attention like Puig. And so Van Slyke found himself insisting he did not tell his father, former big leaguer Andy Van Slyke, that Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw lobbied the front office to trade Puig. The elder Van Slyke insinuated as much during a radio interview in November that heightened the absurdity surrounding Puig’s status within the organization.

The conversation continued Saturday. Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, praised Puig for reshaping his physique this off-season. Manager Dave Roberts pulled Puig aside for their first in-person meeting and promised him a clean slate in 2016. Kershaw vouched for the stability of his relationship with Puig, while the man himself suggested he and Kershaw needed to sit down during spring training “just to make sure that we’re all on the same page.”

During his three seasons as a Dodger, Puig has astounded with his performance and vexed with his work habits. The nuisance of the latter outweighed the value of the former in 2015. Puig appeared in only 79 games, spent two stints on the disabled list and saw his batting average plummet to .255. He spent most of the playoffs as a spectator.

Yet as a new season dawns, the team still hopes he can recapture the form he displayed as a rookie in 2013. The organization asked Puig to slim down and focus on durability rather than musculature. Friedman sounded pleased with the result. Puig had suggested he weighed about 240 pounds, down 15 from his listed weight in 2015.

“He looks great,” Friedman said. “He’s worked extremely hard, both in Miami and in L.A. It was never a weight issue, in the classic sense. It was more about just how big and just how strong he had gotten.”

Roberts also established a beachhead in his relationship with Puig. Don Mattingly, Roberts’ predecessor in the dugout, and his coaching staff failed to connect with Puig, who bothered teammates with lapses in concentration and effort.


Roberts hoped to avoid a similar situation. He met with Puig on Saturday, finding time amid the slew of autograph sessions, on-stage appearances and other engagements at the stadium. He offered his outfielder a new beginning.

“For me, it’s more of ‘let’s wipe the slate clean and let’s start anew,’” Roberts said. “There’s the same core of players, but there’s a completely different coaching staff. And we just want him to be himself. So let’s start fresh.”

Puig burst onto the scene as an electrifying force, capable of excitement at the plate, on the bases and in the field. But as his body betrayed him in 2015, his improprieties became more glaring. The organization does not hope for a repeat of this scenario.

Kershaw and Puig approached a version of detente this winter. The duo shared conversations while serving as ambassadors on a goodwill tour of Puig’s native Cuba in December. Kershaw called their dialogue “great.” Puig mentioned that they talked again Saturday and suggested more would follow.

“Now that we’re going to go out to spring training, going to catch up with him there, have a little bit more of a discussion,” Puig said through an interpreter. “Just to make sure that we’re all on the same page, that we’re all working together as a team, that we’re all focused on getting to the World Series this year.”

The subject of Kershaw’s potential animus toward Puig burst into public view in late November, when Andy Van Slyke implied on a St. Louis radio show that Kershaw wanted Puig gone.


On Saturday, Scott Van Slyke indicated he could not remember what he said to prompt his father’s comments. Kershaw sounded cryptic about the origin of the whole imbroglio.

“Scott is one of my best friends,” Kershaw said. “So whatever I say to Scott is what I say to Scott. And then everything else, it might not be the truth.”

Van Slyke handled the fallout during the subsequent weeks. He asked his father, who coached with the Seattle Mariners in 2015, to stop giving interviews about the Dodgers. He apologized to Kershaw for the perception of a violated trust.

He did not offer Puig an apology. Van Slyke said he did not feel it was necessary.

“You guys see me with Yasiel every day,” Van Slyke said. “I love the kid. I think he’s a benefit to our team. My feelings for him won’t change.”

Follow Andy McCullough on Twitter @McCulloughTimes