Yasiel Puig has hit .521 in spring training for the Dodgers. (USA Today Sports)
GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Legend of Yasiel Puig is greater than The Truth of Yasiel Puig. The Legend plays like Bo Jackson. The Truth simply looks like Bo, a diesel 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds. The Legend hits .521 in spring training. The Truth understands spring-training statistics might as well be tabulated by Arthur Andersen. The Legend is an invincible athlete. The Truth lost three straight games of ping-pong Thursday to Hyun-Jin Ryu, who is the anti-athlete.
The Legend and The Truth do meet in a most important place: Both agree Puig can be a dynamic player for the Los Angeles Dodgers right now. And with Hanley Ramirez down, Carl Crawford's return for the season opener iffy, the reigning world champions in their division and a payroll well over $215 million, it adds up to an easy choice.
Yasiel Puig should start the season with the Dodgers.
"I don't think anyone in here would cry if that happened," Dodgers reliever J.P. Howell said. "You see what he's done. It's ridiculous. It's something different.
"It would be not a bad decision. At all."
Certainly there are drawbacks to the idea of plopping a 22-year-old Cuban in his first full season of professional baseball in front of 50,000 people in a city that can eat alive a kid who signed a $42 million contract after spending his first two decades living in a totalitarian country where there's no such thing as a working wage.
That whole sentence is a pretty good argument against Puig, actually.
As are the financial considerations. By breaking camp with Puig, the Dodgers would start his service clock. If they wait about three weeks to call him up, it would ensure control of Puig through the 2019 season. Assuming he stays in the major leagues from his debut, starting him in L.A. this season means he could hit free agency following the 2018 season.
Rare is the player about whom teams concern themselves with free agency before he has spent a single day in the major leagues. That is what Puig does to people. The Bo Jackson comparison was silly. Puig does not run nearly as well as Bo, nor is his strong arm anything like Bo's RPG launcher. But the look. The swing. The ball trampolining off his bat. It screams superstar. It makes talent evaluators ignore that Puig is 48 at-bats into his spring and still hasn't walked.
Power overpowers everything else. It whispers sweet nothings into the ears of executives and seduces them. And Puig might have more raw power than anyone not named Stanton and Harper.
"If he's not a big leaguer now," said one longtime scout, "I don't know what a big leaguer is."
The scout, who has seen Puig twice, bases his opinion more on look than results. He recognizes the absurdity of Puig's numbers, though he doesn't quite understand those trying to argue it's coming against inferior competition. His contention is correct. In 26 at-bats against pitchers expected to start the season in the minor leagues, Puig is hitting .461/.444/.731. In 22 at-bats against major league pitchers, he is .591/.565/1.000.
Major leaguers he has faced: Jered Weaver, Mat Latos, Matt Harrison, Joe Nathan, Justin Masterson, Trevor Cahill, Mike Fiers, Wade Davis, Dan Straily, Jordan Norberto, Evan Scribner, Sam LeCure, Oliver Perez and Kevin Jepsen – almost all of whom every major league team would like on its roster.
"I take nothing from spring training," Dodgers utilityman Jerry Hairston Jr. said. "It really means nothing. For a young guy, it's good to make an impression. But I've seen too many guys with monster springs you never hear from again.
"Thing is, that's not going to happen with him."
With Puig, there is always a hedge. The Dodgers want to temper expectations not just for his sake but theirs. They planned on sending him to Double-A Chattanooga to start the season, and they don't want to be the team that allows five weeks of impressive results to derail a plan months in the making.
"I remember when I was with the Nationals in '11, and Bryce Harper was in camp," Hairston said. "He had a pretty good camp. And he was pissed he got sent out. I told him it was a good thing. It made him better. He struggled a little in Double-A, but it helped him work hard, work hard, work hard, and look what he's doing now."
That's another argument against Puig: He has spent all of 23 games in organized baseball – nine with the Dodgers' rookie-level club and 14 with their High-A affiliate. They worry about his fielding in a corner-outfield spot and his baserunning and all of the other excuses that serve as palatable rationale in case the reason for a potential demotion are service time-related.
To that, Yoenis Cespedes says: Experience is overrated. The Oakland A's outfielder arrived from Cuba last season, spent not a second in the minor leagues and destroyed American League pitching from the jump. And even though he's just one set of eyes, Cespedes' sentiment echoes plenty of others': Puig, he says, is more than ready.
Quelling assimilation concerns is the presence of Eddie Oropesa, the former big league pitcher whom the Dodgers brought on to look after Puig, much like the A's did with Ariel Prieto and Cespedes. While Oropesa doesn't eliminate Puig getting into off-the-field trouble, his presence mitigates the possibility. He gets along famously with teammates Latin, American and, in Ryu's case, Korean. His English vocabulary has expanded rapidly. And the in-game growth from Puig even in spring training – the shortening of his swing with hitting coach Mark McGwire to prevent his front side from leaking – has taken the power knob and cranked it to 11.
"We'll see if they keep him," Oropesa said. "The way he play now … you see what's going on."
So do the Dodgers, though the decision on Puig involves enough people that it can't take place in the keep-your-25-best vacuum. Crawford's return from Tommy John surgery complicates things. If he is ready April 1 for the season opener against the defending champion Giants, Puig is far less likely to stay. The Dodgers want him to play every day. Their current outfield of Crawford, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier have contracts worth a combined $387 million.
"We've got a pretty sexy outfield even without him," Dodgers starter Zack Greinke said.
Indeed, though freeing up a spot for Puig by trading Crawford or Ethier is a possibility. One of the great advantages of the $7 billion local-television deal the Dodgers signed this offseason is paying the freight for trading partners in exchange for a greater haul of talent. Which means that if the Dodgers find a shortstop or third baseman they like – because Luis Cruz and Juan Uribe aren't exactly bright spots for the highest-paid team in the history of professional sports – they could offer players and cash.
"Send me Ethier and $85 million," said one GM, referring to the amount owed on the right fielder's five-year contract, "and I'll give you whoever you want."
These Dodgers are fascinating, and Puig adds another layer of intrigue. Over the last week, as he has wrecked major league pitching, Puig prompted the Dodgers to soften their stance on his immediate big league prospects from a firm "no" to a "well, maybe, possibly, could be – but probably not."
The Ramirez injury should tip the scales the other way. In a division expected to be as close as the NL West, one or two victories might mean the difference between an October of glory and one spent at home. If the Dodgers crave the division like they say they do, starting Puig's service-time clock early would be a worthwhile sacrifice, just like it was when the Atlanta Braves rode a full year of Jason Heyward to the postseason.
Manager Don Mattingly told reporters Thursday that Puig and the shortstop hole have nothing to do with one another. He didn't acknowledge that Ramirez, his No. 5 hitter, was missing, and that a lineup with Cruz, Uribe, Mark Ellis and the pitcher hitting can use as much help as possible.
And considering it's so early in the Puig annals, maybe some piece of The Legend will turn out to be true. Maybe, just maybe, Puig can do anything.
"Hey, Puig," reliever Peter Moylan said. "Can you play shortstop?"
"Shortstop?" Puig said. "That's easy, papi."
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