Dodgers roll expensive dice with Cuban defector Yasiel Puig
Cash now flows like water at Dodger Stadium. The country at large caught on last week, when the Dodgers liberated the Boston Red Sox from $250 million in contractual liabilities.
Baseball insiders caught on two months ago. Adrian Gonzalez and his fellow Boston refugees had track records, at least.
Yasiel Puig did not play baseball in the season he turned 21, banned from the Cuban leagues after his attempts to flee his homeland. He succeeded in defecting last spring, established residence in Mexico in June and held workouts there for teams interested in signing him.
The Dodgers did, for $42 million, upon the recommendation of a scouting director who never had seen Puig in a game.
“I had to go off of three batting practices,” said Logan White, Dodgers scouting director. “It took me awhile to get my mind around that.”
The early returns are positive and irrelevant. Puig hit four home runs in nine games in rookie ball, so three weeks ago the Dodgers jumped him to Class-A Rancho Cucamonga, where General Manager Ned Colletti got his first look at the mystery outfield prospect.
“He’s got a lot of pluses — power, speed, arm,” Colletti said. “He’s still a lot of a work in progress. He’s a very intriguing player.
“We don’t have anybody in the system that can square a ball up like he does.”
The statistics do not matter now. Puig could hit in Serie Nacional, the top Cuban league, so of course he can hit in the California League. This is about getting timing and rhythm back after his lost year.
The buzz in Rancho Cucamonga had the Dodgers calling up Puig for a major league glimpse this month. However, the Dodgers appear more likely to send him to the Arizona Fall League, then to winter ball, and then see where he is in spring training, with the rust off.
“They can send me wherever they want,” Puig said in Spanish. “This is all about me getting into shape, and if I don’t get into the big leagues this year then maybe next year.”
Puig played against Yoenis Cespedes, the Oakland Athletics rookie who jumped from Cuba directly to the big leagues this season, without a lost year in between. He declined to compare his skills to those of Cespedes.
“For me, I don’t think it will be that difficult to get to the major leagues,” Puig said. “But it’s not up to me. It’s up to the people in the major leagues.”
The Dodgers might appear to have a “no-vacancy” sign in the outfield, with Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford all under contract through at least 2017. The Angels appeared to have no room in their starting rotation this season, and then they scrambled to add Zack Greinke. You never know.
In the meantime, the Dodgers will try to get to know the kid, and vice versa. According to White, Puig had no idea what color the Dodgers wore before they signed him.
White and Mike Brito, the longtime scout in charge of searching for talent in Mexico, best remembered for delivering Fernando Valenzuela to Los Angeles, had a couple days to sell Puig on the Dodgers. They liked him at-bat. They liked him over dinner. They showed him the money.
“It was the best contract that I was offered,” Puig said, explaining why he chose the Dodgers, “and also because I got to know good people like Logan and Mike.”
The Dodgers have assigned an employee to assist Puig with his transition to the United States and to sit in on his interviews. The employee forbids questions about how Puig managed to defect when the Cuban government had already caught him trying.
On the field, Puig is not shy about expressing himself. After he singled for his first hit in Rancho Cucamonga, a scout timed Puig at seven seconds to first base — that is, barely faster than walking. After a single to right field, Puig took a wide turn and gestured toward the right fielder, who promptly threw behind him and threw him out at first base. After he hit an apparent double down the left-field line, Puig coasted so slowly into second base that the left fielder would have had him out easily with an accurate throw.
And, after an opposing manager got in an umpire’s face, Puig mimicked the gesture of the umpire ejecting the manager. Just for laughs, Puig said.
“Their manager got so close to the umpire’s face, I thought he might want to give him a kiss,” Puig told the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.
The Dodgers might want to polish the rough edges, but they do not want to rob Puig of his edge entirely.
“He may look like he’s jogging real slow sometimes,” White said. “When he’s got to run hard, he’ll fly down the line. He’s animated. If he gets hit in the big leagues, could I see him flip his bat? He might.
“I think he’ll have a lot of flair. I think the fans in L.A. will like him.”
In Rancho Cucamonga, they do. When a fan interrupted an interview to ask in Spanish for an autograph, Puig obliged. “If I don’t sign autographs, the people get sad,” he said. “It’s the same in Cuba.”
When Puig learned that the son of his English teacher had been diagnosed with cancer, White said, he offered to pay for the treatment.
“I think the kid has a great heart,” White said.
Not every player wants to give interviews in his second language. Bartolo Colon and Vladimir Guerrero never did. Puig wants to try, from the day he arrives in L.A.
“I need to learn English to talk with the fans,” he said. “I don’t want to just have 50 words.”
The reviews on Puig were not unanimous within baseball’s scouting community. Then again, former Angels scouting director Eddie Bane took plenty of hits for signing Kendrys Morales out of Cuba, and that turned out just fine.
White is willing to put numbers on Puig’s potential in a major league season: .300 batting average, 30 home runs, 30 stolen bases.
“I’m hoping, if his tools play out the way we think they can, the contract will ultimately be a bargain,” White said.
Puig is the first and last player the Dodgers will sign from Latin America for $42 million. Baseball’s new international spending limits took effect four days after the Dodgers signed Puig.
Stan Kasten, the Dodgers’ president, said the team has committed to spend all of its allotted $2.9 million on international signings this year. Colletti said the team would hire more international scouts, with talent evaluation at a premium since the spending limits might force the Dodgers to sign one Latin prospect at the expense of another.
That White could spend $42 million is a revelation, after former owner Frank McCourt had cut so many corners that the Dodgers had essentially abandoned Latin America. That White cannot spend $42 million again means everyone will be watching Puig very closely, especially the new owners.
“That’s the wonderful thing about the situation we’re in in L.A. right now,” White said. “They want to be aggressive.
“I’m sure, if it doesn’t work out, I won’t hear the end of it.”
Times staff writer Stephen Ceasar contributed to this report.
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