Sunday afternoon, the Los Angeles Dodgers sent pitcher Matt Magill to the minor leagues, then promoted outfielder Yasiel Puig to replace him. With outfielder Matt Kemp on the disabled list and Carl Crawford ailing with a bad hamstring, the Dodgers need an outfielder. Puig has been creating waves since signing a seven-year contract last summer, but his performance as a professional has been outstanding.
Puig grew up in Cuba and his talent was evident from a young age. So was a volatile personality, and he missed the 2011 Cuban season reportedly for disciplinary reasons, although fear of defection might have had something to do with that. Puig did defect, ending up in Mexico where he worked out for teams last June. The circumstances regarding that were strange to say the least, and once teams finally got a look at him, most were not especially impressed. He showed power, but also looked out of shape and featured a very raw approach. Bad rumors about his makeup just complicated the already murky picture.
While most observers were not wild about him, the Dodgers saw something they liked. . .no, they saw something they loved. They ended up signing Puig to a seven-year contract worth $42,000,000, which included a $12,000,000 bonus. This sent shock waves through the industry: even people from other organizations who liked Puig didn't think he was worth that kind of money and felt that the Dodgers had massively overpaid. The Dodgers, for their part, saw Puig as an excellent athlete with tremendous power who just needed to round back into game shape after missing almost a full season of games with the suspension and defection.
His pro career got off to a good start with a 12-for-30 (.400) run through the Arizona Rookie League last summer. Promoted to High-A Rancho Cucamonga for August, he hit .327/.407/.423 with seven steals, six walks, and eight strikeouts in 52 at-bats. From a performance standpoint he held his own, and although there were some complaints from California League observers about an arrogant attitude, talent-wise it looked like the Dodgers had something potentially special.
Puig removed the "potentially" from that assessment this spring, destroying Cactus League pitching by hitting .517 with an .828 SLG in big league camp. Yes, it was spring training, and there were concerns about his strike zone judgment, but the scouting reports took a big step forward, with some Bo Jackson comparisons cropping up and previously-skeptical observers now seeing super-star caliber tools in Puig.
He's continued to mash at Chattanooga, hitting .313/.383/.599 with eight homers, 13 steals, 15 walks, and just 29 strikeouts in 147 at-bats. His power/speed combination is everything that could be hoped for, and he's kept his strikeouts under control. Even his defense in right field has been better than expected.
Puig is a 6-3, 245 pound right-handed hitter and thrower, born December 7, 1990. All of his physical tools rate above-average or excellent, including his running speed and throwing arm. There was some concern about his physical conditioning a year ago, but that doesn't seem to be an issue at this point. No one doubts his power, and even his pure hitting skills have proven to be better than many observers originally perceived. Some quibbles about his hitting mechanics have yet to harm him in actual games.
All that said, we do need to see how he handles high-level breaking pitches; what he was seeing in Double-A wasn't really testing him. Given how far he has come in a year, I think there's every reason to be optimistic about Puig's future on purely baseball grounds. The bottom line is that superior tools are all here, and so far the performance is as well.
The glitch is makeup. He was arrested for speeding and reckless driving earlier this spring. That particular incident could be a matter of simple immaturity and cultural adjustment, but it fed into a long-standing narrative about personality issues. For all his wondrous play on the field, Puig's attitude still rubs some observers the wrong way, with continued complaints about his body language and a habit of bat-flipping when things don't go his way.
It is notable that doubts about his personality pre-date his defection, but is this enough to derail him?
Obviously the Dodgers don't think so given what they've invested in him. He is still young and adapting to a new culture. Major league clubhouses (and umpires) have a habit of forcing attitude adjustments on haughty young players when necessary, and certainly the Dodgers staff knows what to expect here.
Puig doesn't have to turn into Myron Milquetoast and there are many brilliant players who are arrogant jerks. The successful ones don't necessarily turn into nice people, but they learn to channel that aggression and frustration into success on the field. Good coaching, being around the right veterans, and simple chronological advancement as the brain and mind mature all help with this, although ultimately the impetus for improvement has to come from within the player himself.
Whatever one may say about Puig's style, he did show the courage to escape Cuba. He's improved a great deal as a player already, getting into better physical shape, polishing his fielding, sharpening his batting eye. Those things don't happen without a drive to succeed and a great deal of willpower. Now comes the hard part, as the major leagues provide the deepest set of character tests: how will he respond to both failure and success at the highest level?
I don't know the answer, but it will be fascinating to watch.