MINNEAPOLIS -- Back in March, before the Dodgers played the Angels in one of their annual preseason exhibition games, several Dodgers players, including Hanley Ramirez and Juan Uribe, were posing for pictures behind the batting cage with Mike Trout.
When Yasiel Puig tried to jump in the shot, Uribe -- who, when he’s not playing third base volunteers for the chore of keeping Puig humble -- playfully shoved Puig out of the picture, saying in Spanish, "Puros caballos," which roughly translates as, "Studs only."
Eventually, Puig got his picture and, as usual, he posted it to his Instagram account with the caption, "Trout, a good player and a pleasure to meet."
If things keep going as they are, these two young players will meet, and be linked, for many years to come. Trout is 22. Puig is 23. And, as their fortunes ebb and flow as all major league players' do, people will ask the question, "Who would you take?"
If we rewind and freeze the frame on June 3, you could have made a plausible case for Puig over Trout. Less than a year into Puig’s first calendar year in Major League Baseball, he was batting .343 with a 1.042 OPS. He had 11 homers and 40 RBIs after 54 games. He was showing newfound discipline at the plate. For the first time in his career, Trout was beginning to create some doubters. Trout had 64 strikeouts in his first 54 games and his OPS had dipped from Mount Olympus onto the soil where humans live. It was, gasp, .925.
But even most die-hard Dodgers fans would admit that was simply a moment, fleeting as they all are. Put those fans in a big-money fantasy league and how many Dodgers fans would actually choose Puig over Trout. It’s an unfair comparison, of course, like finding a brilliant young player in 1953 and saying, “Yeah, but is he as good as Mickey Mantle?” As this Jayson Stark piece illustrates so well, at this All-Star Game, Trout likely is taking over for Derek Jeter as the face of baseball. He’s doing that mainly because he is the best player in baseball. If we go by wins above replacement, Trout’s 25.8 through his age-22 season is the best of all time, edging Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Mel Ott and Alex Rodriguez. That’s pretty good, right?
Puig’s cumulative WAR (remember, he has played less than half as many major league games as Trout) is 8.2. So, yeah, he’s in the discussion, too.
Just as Puig has found himself fascinated by Trout, the feeling is mutual. Trout said that over the past year or so, every time he got back to his home and turned on "SportsCenter" or the MLB Network, it seemed like they were showing Puig’s highlights or breaking down aspects of his game, the good and the bad. Like many other fans, Trout finds Puig fun to watch.
Asked to compare their games, Trout admitted there are similarities, then settled on this fundamental difference: "I'm a little more of a control guy. He pretty much lets it all out -- lets it eat -- and you've got to respect that. He's a great player."
On Monday, Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke, who is one of the few players to have played with both young superstars, called Trout the "perfect player." That might be a bit of a stretch. Graft Puig's powerful right arm onto Trout and you would, perhaps, have the perfect outfielder. Trout has roughly an average arm. Puig's is a difference-maker, particularly when he aims it in the right place.
Where Trout exerts his edge, as he said, is in areas of control. He is a skilled baserunner who is rarely caught stealing. He has a more discerning batter's eye, rarely swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. He takes efficient routes to fly balls and line drives, hits cutoff men. In the parlance of baseball, he does both the little things and the big things. Nothing Puig does is little.
But there are more similarities than differences. You don't see many players as big and strong as these two who can run so well. In both cases, their primary asset is their versatility.
Listen to one good young pitcher, an All-Star, who has been burned by Puig talking about it and you would swear he was talking about Trout.
"I think he can do a little bit of everything, and that's what makes him so dangerous," San Diego's Tyson Ross said. "If there are guys on base, he can drive them in. If you make a mistake to him leading off, first pitch, he's not afraid to hit it 450 feet. He's also got the speed and the quickness to drop a bunt down for a base hit. I don't think there's any one facet of his game you can hone in on. You just have to make pitches to that guy, because he's a tremendous athlete and a great baseball player."
So, compare them all you want, Dodgers and Angels fans, but in the end be content with the fact that Southern California has two tremendous athletes and two great baseball players roaming its stadiums. The game is certainly lucky to have two brilliant young stars in one of its most important markets. If the rest of the country can stay up late enough, they have the rare opportunity to channel surf between, perhaps, the two best overall players in baseball.