Dodgers

Yasiel Puig is doing and saying the right things, and the Dodgers are keeping their fingers crossed

In something that has become a rite of spring, Yasiel Puig is standing in front of his locker, smiling and nodding, making a case why the upcoming season will be better than the last.

History indicates that anything Puig says should be viewed with skepticism. Around this time last year, he was saying he wanted to be the Kobe Bryant or LeBron James of baseball. How did that work out?

Only now, the most credible voice in the Dodgers clubhouse is supporting Puig's claim that he is making a serious effort to change.

"I've been really impressed with him this spring," pitcher Clayton Kershaw said. "He's putting in a lot of work."

Kershaw's words carry weight, especially in this instance. Kershaw has never been mistaken for the chairman of the Puig Fan Club, which is why it was entirely believable that he encouraged the front office to trade the outfielder, as was insinuated a few months ago by Andy Van Slyke, the father of Dodgers outfielder Scott Van Slyke.

Kershaw is seeing what others see: With Puig looking and sounding like a new person, the elements are in place for him to have a long-awaited breakout season. The prospect is tantalizing for the Dodgers, who could be transformed into a much better team.

Then again, Puig has teased them like this before.

The first two weeks of camp have unfolded as well as they could have.

Some of the changes with Puig are obvious, starting with his appearance.

While still muscular, he is considerably more slender than last year, when he was listed at 255 pounds in the team's media guide. Puig said he is down to 240 pounds and that his body fat is less than 7%.

"I watch what I eat now," Puig said in Spanish, explaining that his diet consists primarily of fish and fruit.

The weight loss was the idea of the front office, which believed it would help his legs remain healthy. Puig was limited to 79 games last season by hamstring problems and batted .255 with 11 home runs and 38 runs batted in.

"It was the first time in my life I was injured so much," Puig said. "I didn't feel good watching my teammates from the dugout. I couldn't help them. I couldn't help myself."

Puig isn't certain the drop in weight will translate into more time on the field, but said, "You don't lose anything by trying."

Other changes are more subtle.

Whereas he used to walk around the team's spring-training complex in his own world — he was often seen staring into a mobile device, or with headphones over his ears — he is making a concerted effort to engage others. The gestures are often simple — a hello, a nod, a smile — but his teammates have noticed.

"His energy, his outlook on things, his relating with his teammates, has been great," Manager Dave Roberts said.

Puig entered the team's annual ping-pong tournament with newcomer Kenta Maeda as his partner.

Roberts said he has come to realize that Puig is more aware of how he is perceived than many people think.

Repairing his relationships with teammates became a priority for Puig in the wake of Andy Van Slyke's comments on a St. Louis station. Kershaw hasn't directly addressed whether he ever said to the front office what Van Slyke implied, but Puig doesn't seem to mind.

"If everything bothered me, I'd come to blows with the entire world," he said, jokingly.

Puig sounded as if he was willing to share responsibility for the controversy, saying of Kershaw, "If he said it, he had his reasons."

The players spoke on a goodwill trip to Cuba in December that was sponsored by Major League Baseball. They said their interactions since then have been friendly.

Puig's feelings toward his manager has also improved. Puig acknowledged he had a strained relationship with Roberts' predecessor, Don Mattingly, who is now with the Miami Marlins. By the end of last season, Puig and Mattingly were barely on speaking terms.

"He did his job, I did mine," Puig said. "We didn't understand each other. Now that he's not here, we don't have to talk about him."

Puig wanted instead to talk about Roberts.

"He and I are on the same page," Puig said. "We have the same goals. We have a good friendship."

The front office is hopeful.

"Their relationship right now is at a point where Yasiel really wants to help Dave succeed in the job," General Manager Farhan Zaidi said. "That's a real source of motivation for him."

Puig has been reunited with Tim Bravo, a former English instructor for the Dodgers who was his designated companion when he was called up to the major leagues in 2013. Puig called Bravo in the off-season and asked him to accompany him to spring training.

"He's someone who helped me a lot in 2013," Puig said. "I'm grateful he's helping me. He's staying at my house, waking me up early so I can get here on time, helping me simplify things at home so I have fewer worries and can devote myself more to my work."

Puig said he would like Bravo to remain by his side during the regular season.

Asked about his ambitions for the season, Puig exhibited newfound humility, speaking less about himself and more about the team. The same man who once said he wanted to be the face of his sport mentioned only one individual goal: to play in 162 games.

Of a possible return to the All-Star game, Puig said, "If I'm not there, it won't kill me. What I want is to be a champion. To be a champion is better than to be in the All-Star game."

So, what to make of this? Is it an actual metamorphosis?

The answer will be revealed in time.

As Roberts said, "It's the follow through. You can say all the right things, but people judge the follow through."

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 02, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "True, blue? - Puig seems more mature and the Dodgers are keeping fingers crossed" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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