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Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Yasiel Puig builds believers

By Mark Saxon
ESPNLosAngeles.com

Don Mattingly had pressed hard on the verbal brakes all spring when asked about outfield prospect Yasiel Puig. He said the Los Angeles Dodgers wouldn't rush him, that his skills were still raw, that he hadn't yet proven he could hit consistent major-league pitching. But one afternoon last week, Mattingly just let it fly.

Yasiel Puig
Yasiel Puig homers against the Kansas City Royals on March 15.

He had witnessed the Cuban defector lash an opposite-field home run, smack a single to right field so viciously he nearly got thrown out at first and send a low liner whistling over a pitcher's head. Mattingly didn't quite know what to say.

"I don't think I've seen anybody do something like this," Mattingly told reporters in Arizona. "You don't see this kind of package. This is a Bo Jackson-type package you just don't see."

And it has been creating buzz in the Cactus League all spring. Puig is 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, chiseled. Had he grown up in Los Angeles rather than along the southern coast of Cuba, he might be a senior linebacker at USC instead of the Dodgers' top prospect. He runs with a linebacker's gait, heavy but with explosive speed.

"I am a believer," said one scout.

"Impressive. He's hitting balls all over the diamond," a second scout said. "He's not just a one-dimensional guy trying to turn and burn stuff. He has power to all fields and he knows that. Just wait until he gets comfortable. That's the scary part to me."

Puig, who signed a seven-year, $42 million contract last June, has the look of a player about to break out. Going into Wednesday's game, he is batting .500 with an .804 slugging percentage, team-high 10 RBIs and he has no walks in 46 at-bats. The Dodgers have him penciled in for Double-A Chattanooga to start the season, but they won't be pinned down on his travel plans beyond that. An injury to one of the Dodgers' outfielders could prompt a call at virtually any point.

They're certainly taking a good, hard look this spring. Tuesday, Puig was batting cleanup in the Dodgers' game at Camelback Ranch against the Oakland A's. He went 4-for-4, including a long home run, and likely would have hit for the cycle had he been running harder out of the box on a fifth-inning single. Fellow Cuban Yoenis Cespedes threw him out.

A year ago, the A's had Cespedes ticketed for Triple-A, but they changed their minds after watching him play for a month. Cespedes ignited a listless offense and helped the A's reach the playoffs for the first time in six years.

Not that the cases are particularly parallel. Cespedes is 27 and had dominated at the highest level of Cuban baseball for seven years. Puig is 22 and, less than two years ago, missed an entire season as punishment after the Cubans caught him trying to defect the first time.

Oakland had few other outfield options and a huge chunk of its financial resources invested in Cespedes. The Dodgers have All-Stars at every outfield spot and a record payroll.

Oakland A's assistant general manager David Forst considers it unfair to directly compare Cespedes to Puig because of the age difference and different circumstances.

"We didn't have anybody better," Forst said. "It wasn't as much about him as the other 25 guys. We didn't have anybody to put in the lineup who had his presence. Even if he hit .200 the first two months, he had the ability to hit a home run at any time.

"We only signed him for four years and we were going to be paying him whether he was at Triple-A or the big leagues."

Puig has to prove to the Dodgers he is a mature enough hitter to handle consistent major league pitching and expensive major league scouting reports. Most numbers suggest he is, but others make you wonder. His defense is raw, his base running occasionally wild.

He also has to prove he is mature enough to handle everything else that comes with big-league life. Forst said the A's felt comfortable starting Cespedes in Oakland because he seemed to be assimilating quickly and handling the media and off-field distractions.

Oakland assigned former major-league pitcher Ariel Prieto to be Cespedes' interpreter and liaison to American culture. The Dodgers brought in former major-league pitcher Eddie Oropesa to fill the same role with Puig. Both Prieto and Oropesa are Cuban.

In his first season of American baseball, Puig sent mixed signals. Scouts witnessed him loafing after base hits. After one single to right field, he took a wide turn and gestured toward the right fielder, who threw behind him to record an out at first. After an opposing manager argued with an umpire, Puig mimicked the umpire and later told the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, "Their manager got so close to the umpire's face, I thought he might want to give him a kiss."

Those are the kinds of behaviors that can draw unwanted attention in the major leagues, but so far this spring, Puig has kept a low profile in the Dodgers' clubhouse and a high profile on the field, just how they want it.

He said he has learned from last summer's incidents.

"Here, you have to be more disciplined every day to get better and learn the game," Puig said recently in the Dodgers' spring clubhouse.

In one regard, Puig has a big head start on Cespedes. It took the A's center fielder more than a year after he defected to get his family out of Cuba. One week ago, he saw his mother for the first time in more than a year.

Puig said his mother and father, Omar and Maritza, and his sister, Yaima, are already in the United States, settled in Miami. They traveled to Arizona to watch Puig play just last week.

"Everything is new to me, but I thank God my family is here," Puig said. "That makes me so happy."

So far, Puig seems to have a knack for handling changes of scenery. It shouldn't be such a tough flight from Chattanooga to LAX.