Yasiel Puig truly an amazing talent
It's been quite a ride so far for Dodgers' 22-year-old rookie Cuban sensation
NEW YORK -- Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig is officially in supernova territory. A few weeks ago, most baseball fans couldn't even pronounce his name (it's Yah-SEE-el Pweeg). Now his No. 66 jersey is the trendy fashion item at Chavez Ravine, Vin Scully is gushing like a schoolboy about his tools, and a spot is waiting for him on the Mega-Prospect Mount Rushmore alongside Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
Puig has embarked on an amazing journey at age 22, made even more incredible by its improbable beginnings. His background in Cuba is shrouded in mystery, but his new life began, for all practical purposes, with a tryout in Mexico City that was so spectacular it prompted Logan White, the Dodgers' vice president of amateur scouting, to pony up $42 million over seven years. All it took was a couple of days of batting practice and a grainy YouTube video of Puig flashing his defensive skills back home.
White takes understandable pleasure in recounting how Puig became a Dodger. He settled on the $42 million figure because he liked Puig better than Jorge Soler, who received a $30 million package from the Cubs, and thought he had more upside than Yoenis Cespedes, who signed with Oakland for $36 million. White stayed true to his convictions after a spirited exchange with global cross-checker Paul Fryer in a Mexico City hotel room at 2 a.m. Fryer questioned White's sanity, and White responded by challenging Fryer's fortitude.
"It took a while for us to get our minds around it," White said.
Now the kid is a sensation, and people are actually debating whether he should be an All-Star after 13 games and 48 at-bats in the majors. Puig has captivated fans in Los Angeles and energized scouts who spend so much time packing and unpacking they can't remember what city they're in half the time.
How impressive is Puig? All that speed and power come in an imposing 6-foot-3, 235-pound package, so Bo Jackson's name is getting tossed around a lot these days. One talent evaluator contacted for this story compared him to Roberto Clemente, and an AL scout seemed grateful for the opportunity to talk about him.
"When you see special things happen on a baseball field, it gives you tingles," the scout said. "I'd like to help you write a great story on this kid, because I think he's a freak."
Entering Wednesday's day-night doubleheader against the Yankees in the Bronx, Puig is hitting .479 (23-for-48) with a 1.271 OPS and a dramatic flair that can't be quantified. He hits grand slams to win games, throws out baserunners to end games, and leaps moderately sized buildings in a single bound.
When baseball personnel people try to summon names from the past to describe budding stars in the present, some habits are hard to break. Historical comparisons are typically made along racial or ethnic lines, so Lorenzo Cain gets compared to Mike Cameron, Christian Yelich is likened to Jacoby Ellsbury or a young Shawn Green, and Yasiel Puig's main comps are Jackson, Raul Mondesi, a young Sammy Sosa or his fellow Cuban defector, Cespedes.
But Puig is so unlike anything that's arrived on the scene in recent years, it's doubly challenging for scouts to get a read on him. Although he's very raw in a lot of ways, three of his five tools -- power, speed and arm -- rate a 70 or above on the 20-80 scouts' scale. The other two, his glove and pure hitting ability, are well above average.
"With some players it's really easy to say, 'He reminds me of someone,'" said an AL pro scouting director. "With others you have a hard time. I don't really have a comparison for this guy. He's Puig."
Life is a carnival these days for Puig, who is experiencing all the rites of passage that a hot-shot rookie can handle. He has already enjoyed his first standing ovation, his first taco lunch with teammates Adrian Gonzalez and Luis Cruz, his first visit to Yankee Stadium and -- most important -- his inaugural visit to the MLB Fan Cave.
We've seen what the kid is capable of doing. What can he become? The following observations from personnel people throughout the game might provide a few clues:
He has some Bryce Harper in him
Puig played well enough to make the big league roster out of spring training, only to be dispatched to Double-A Chattanooga because the Dodgers had a surplus of outfielders. He hit .313 with a .599 slugging percentage in 40 games with the Lookouts, but it quickly became apparent that he was bored in the Southern League because the caliber of competition was too easy for him.
That's similar to what scouts said about Harper when he was progressing through the Washington Nationals' chain at age 19. But Puig took it to a whole different level.
"He was like a young Labrador retriever getting in everybody's business," said a scout who watched Puig in Chattanooga. "He was taking swings in the dugout and almost hitting his teammates. He was looking at girls in the stands. They gave him a day off and he was coaching first base, and he was out there hamming it up. I said, 'He must think this is a TV game.'"
Puig has been considerably more focused in the majors. Like Harper, he plays with so much passion that it's spawned a fear he might injure himself -- or somebody else. He almost ran into teammate Andre Ethier twice in pursuit of fly balls in Pittsburgh last weekend. And Dodgers manager Don Mattingly nearly had a seizure when Puig appeared to jam his left hand and shoulder on an awkward slide into first base on an infield single against Atlanta.
"It's just raw energy," White said. "Yasi likes to play the game like Harper does. He's going to play with crazy abandon. He almost killed himself on that slide at first base. I'm like, 'Dude, what are you trying to do?' But he plays with that kind of intensity."
He has all the talent that [Bryce] Harper has, and all the pitfalls. Right now there's no muffler with this guy." -- A scout on Puig
White is not the only baseball person to cringe over those imprudent moments and the impact they might have on Puig's long-term shelf life.
"He has all the talent that Harper has, and all the pitfalls," said a scout. "Right now there's no muffler with this guy."
Added an American League special assistant: "He's a bull in a china shop. He can overpower the game. But at some point he'll need to learn to play under control to survive long-term. I believe he'll wear himself out playing with that kind of energy all the time. Otherwise he will have to be an extreme exception to keep up this pace."
And some Derek Jeter
But at least the kid's heart is in the right place. Nothing says effort like an all-out sprint to first base, and Puig is similar to Derek Jeter, Harper and Pete Rose in his insistence on running out every ground ball as if it matters.
A scout who watched Puig in Double-A charted his times down the first-base line: Puig covered the 90 feet in 4.2 seconds, followed by a 4.19, a 4.22 and a 4.18. Other scouts have clocked him closer to 4.1. That's not quite Mike Trout territory, but Puig consistently busts it out of the box and instinctively thinks "double" when a ball lands in the outfield.
"Even when he knows he's made an out, he runs hard," the scout said. "That's how he grew on me. He does everything on the field hard. Sometimes he'll drop a ball and you'll say, 'Oh my God, that was so easy.' And on other balls you'll say, 'How did he get there?' He can make the average play look hard and the hard play look average."
And a little Matt Kemp
Think about hitters with "80" power on the 20-80 scouts scale, and you're talking about Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, Frank "The Capital Punisher" Howard, a young Mickey Mantle and a handful of others. Among baseball's new breed, Giancarlo Stanton personifies the ideal.
Puig doesn't appear to have that kind of power, but he can drop some jaws when he lays into one. He already has a 443-foot shot against San Diego's Clayton Richard to his credit. Of his first four home runs as a Dodger, he pulled two to left field and hit two the opposite way to right.
Projecting numbers is a risky business, but one front-office man thinks that 30 homers, 40 stolen bases, 120 RBIs and a .300 batting average are within Puig's reach if he stays healthy, embraces the nuances of the game and develops a greater familiarity with big league parks and the grind of a 162-game schedule. For sake of perspective, the only four players to achieve that combination are Canseco, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds and Matt Kemp.
Over the past 20 years, 10 right-handed-hitting outfielders have slugged 30 homers and stolen 30 bases in the same season. The list includes Vladimir Guerrero, Alfonso Soriano, Sosa, Ellis Burks, Dante Bichette, Preston Wilson, Ryan Braun, Trout, Kemp and Mondesi, who won a Rookie of the Year award with the Dodgers and hit 271 home runs over 13 seasons.
"A lot of guys have compared him to Raul Mondesi," an NL scout said of Puig. "But he's going to be far and away better than Raul Mondesi."
With some Kirby Puckett
Puig has the rare ability -- like Kirby Puckett, Guerrero and some others -- to take a pitch that's out of the strike zone and put it in play with authority. That takes strength, hand-eye coordination and a special brand of bat speed that allows him to wait a tick longer than most before starting his swing.
"He's so strong, he can take a ball off the end of the bat and drop it between the outfield and the infield, or get fisted and drop it over the shortstop's head, or swing so hard and just miss it that the outfielder takes a step back and then has to run in because you're so used to him crushing balls," a scout said. "He just has that little extra."
So far this season, almost 44 percent of the pitches Puig swings at are outside the strike zone. Among full-time players, only Pablo Sandoval, Soriano and Adam Jones have been less selective. In a recent Dodgers-Pirates game, Puig went 2-for-4 out of the leadoff spot and saw a total of seven pitches.
But Puig did manage to draw 27 walks (compared to 44 strikeouts) in 262 minor league plate appearances, and it appears he's disciplined enough to take four wide when teams are averse to challenging him. At the very least, he can expect teams to start pitching him a lot more carefully very soon.
The "hard-in, soft-away" strategy has been a staple for pitchers against hitting phenoms for decades. Based on the scouts we talked to, Puig can look forward to a deluge of fastballs up and in and breaking balls down and out of the zone for the foreseeable future.
And a little Ichiro Suzuki
Any list of the greatest right field arms in history would have to include Clemente, Al Kaline, Jesse Barfield, Ellis Valentine, Dave Parker, Andre Dawson, Dwight Evans and Guerrero, to name a few.
It remains to be seen if Puig is in that category or a tick below, but he certainly enjoys flaunting his wares. In his first week as a Dodger he cut down San Diego's Chris Denorfia at first base from the warning track and nailed Atlanta's Andrelton Simmons at third. Those two heaves prompted Los Angeles pitcher Stephen Fife to compare him to Ichiro Suzuki and Jeff Francoeur, two renowned throwers of a more recent vintage.
The cutoff man -- like the stop sign from the third-base coach -- is strictly optional for Puig. But the carry on his throws is undeniable.
"Vlad would probably be the rare 80 arm, and Shawon Dunston would be the rare 80," said a scout. "I'm dropping a 70 on this guy. I had to see it, and I did. He's got a cannon. And he can do it flat-footed sometimes."
And he's on the Aroldis Chapman/adjustment-learning curve
Puig made headlines in the minors when he was stopped for driving 97 mph in a 50 mph zone, but the Dodgers describe him as a hard-working kid with good intentions. He wants to win and cares about the overall success of the team. He also has an infectious smile, a twinkle in his eye and a charisma that transcends language barriers.
But there will be lessons to be learned and obstacles to be confronted as he embraces his new life and fame in the U.S.
"He's still young," said one member of the Dodgers organization who has spent time with Puig. "If you give any 21- or 22-year-old $42 million and he comes from a country like Cuba where he has no freedom and he defects and suddenly has all the freedoms in the world, I think that would be tough on any of us."
How sheltered was Puig when the Dodgers added him to the fold last June?
"When we signed him, he didn't have a clue what the Dodger colors were," White said. "He's had so much coming at him so fast."
Puig's rough edges and lack of worldliness didn't prevent the Dodgers from spending $42 million worth of green to get acquainted. Less than a year later, he's the talk of baseball and leading the major leagues in "wows." No matter how his career turns out, it promises to be a heck of a ride.
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