Chairman Mark Walter backs Yasiel Puig, says yes, Dodgers can improve

Yasiel Puig started this season with visions of becoming the Kobe Bryant or LeBron James of baseball.

With the Dodgers returning from the All-Star break on Friday, Puig is batting a pedestrian .261. He will enter the opener of a three-game road series against the Washington Nationals with only four home runs, in part because he was sidelined for six weeks with a strained hamstring.

Puig, 24, is in his third major league season, but is still a polarizing figure. People in a position to know describe his work habits as inconsistent and his clubhouse presence as irritating.

While there is increased skepticism within the organization as to whether Puig's production will ever match his talent, Dodgers Chairman Mark Walter remains optimistic.

"I wouldn't give up on him now," said Walter, the team's controlling owner.

Walter said his backing of Puig is based not on the player's marketability, but on how he thinks Puig will develop as a player.

"I think he's just going to be a great player," Walter said.

Walter pointed to a groundout by Puig last week in a home game against the Philadelphia Phillies.

"If you watch him, he's playing hard," Walter said. "Did you see that squibbler? He ran his butt off. He almost got there too."

Walter continued, "Puig clearly, clearly has incredible potential and talent. And I think he's got a big heart and wants to play hard. So I think that will show up."

However, Walter said that if the front office decides it should trade Puig, he wouldn't prevent it from doing so.

"It'd be dumb for me to hire them and tell them what to do," Walter said.

As of last week, Walter said he was unaware of any such conversations. "But, to be fair, I'm not in that room all the time," he added.

With 2 1/2 months remaining in the regular season, Walter said he is pleased with the work of the team's new front office, which is headed by Andrew Friedman, the first-year president of baseball operations.

Walter is particularly encouraged by how the Dodgers have stocked their farm system, which he thinks will translate into long-term stability. The team spent more than $20 million this month to sign international amateur players.

"If you go back two years, we have a much better list of young players in the minors than we did before," Walter said.

As for the big league team's performance this season, Walter said, "You have to feel good where we're sitting."

The Dodgers have a 4 1/2-game lead over the second-place San Francisco Giants in the National League West.

Of Manager Don Mattingly, Walter said, "I think he's doing fine."

Still, Walter acknowledged the Dodgers could improve.

"There's still work to be done," he said. "There's no question about that. It's not like we're dominant."

The Dodgers already have a record payroll of more than $270 million, but Walter said Friedman will have financial freedom heading into the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline. The team is in search of starting pitching to replace Hyun-Jin Ryu and Brandon McCarthy, who underwent season-ending operations.

"It just has to be smart," Walter said.

In other words, he doesn't want the Dodgers to compromise their future by trading a top prospect or inheriting a contract that will limit their flexibility.

"I don't think just money does it," Walter said. "We have the highest payroll in baseball, but I don't think Washington's quaking in their boots when they're playing us. You can't buy a good team; you have to build a good team."

While Walter said he prioritizes winning over glamour — "I'd rather win the World Series than have three guys everybody thinks are stars and not make the playoffs" — he said the Dodgers aren't lacking in headline attractions in the wake of the off-season departures of Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez and Dee Gordon.

"We have five All-Stars," he said, referring to Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Adrian Gonzalez, Yasmani Grandal and Joc Pederson.

Walter said he would like Greinke to remain with the Dodgers beyond this season. Greinke started for the NL at the All-Star game and has the lowest earned-run average in baseball at 1.39.

Greinke can elect to become a free agent at the end of this season and forfeit the $71 million he is guaranteed over the next three seasons to try for a bigger deal.

Walter sounded hopeful about securing widespread distribution for the Dodgers-owned cable channel, SportsNet LA, which remains unavailable to the majority of households in the Los Angeles area.

Walter thinks the situation could be resolved before the end of the season.

"You bet," he said.

Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications are currently the only major cable providers offering their subscribers SportsNet LA. TWC and the Dodgers are partners in SportsNet LA. Charter recently entered an agreement to purchase TWC.

Some analysts predict the blackout will remain in place through the season, with SportsNet LA not becoming widely available until Charter's merger with TWC is completed.

Walter said he was unaware of specifics, but added, "I know there's a lot going on behind the scenes trying to get things done."

Walter suspects the holdup is the proposed merger between AT&T and DirecTV.

"I think if the AT&T merger was finished, it would be done," Walter said. "The companies are so focused on that."

Up next

The Dodgers' Mike Bolsinger (4-3, 3.08 ERA) will oppose Washington Nationals right-hander Jordan Zimmerman (8-5, 3.22) at Nationals Park on Friday at 4 p.m. PDT. TV: SportsNet LA; Radio: 570, 1020.

Twitter: @dylanohernandez

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