Signed to a massive seven-year, $42 million contract in late June, there was widespread uncertainty as to what the Dodgers were getting in Yasiel Puig.
After Tuesday’s 4-for-4 performance that included a long home run in his first at-bat, Puig is now batting .500/.489/.804 with three home runs, four stolen bases and 10 RBI through 21 games this spring.
While he’s obviously yet to be tested against consistent, big league-caliber pitching, the 22-year-old has quickly proven to be more advanced than anyone (including the Dodgers) expected.
With Carl Crawford’s elbow still enough of an issue that he’s limited to a role as the team’s designated hitter, Puig has been the recipient of extended playing time at both corner outfield positions this spring. The 22-year-old has clearly made the most of the opportunity, as he continues to thoroughly impress the organization and is yet to be cut from big league camp.
Although manager Don Mattingly has already stated that Puig will open the 2013 season in the minor leagues, there’s definitely something to be said for the fact that he’s still playing full games with only 12 days before the start of the season.
But despite what Mattingly may have already stated, there’s reason to believe that Puig stands a much better chance of cracking the Opening Day roster than the organization is letting on.
At 6’3”, 245 pounds, Puig is a physical specimen. In fact, his elite blend of physical strength and outstanding athleticism has prompted Mattingly to compare him to Bo Jackson. Although he’s not quite on Bo’s level, the comparison is apt.
Despite his thicker build, Puig possesses lots of lean and quick-twitch muscles, while his strong wrists and forearms help him generate plus bat speed and whip the barrel through the zone. Like most Cuban players, he’s a free-swinger who attacks pitches throughout the strike zone. As a result, Puig does swing through his share of pitches, but at the same time, his excellent hand-eye coordination yields tons of contact and enables him to still muscle hits on weakly-hit balls.
Even though there’s some length to Puig’s lofty swing, the right-handed hitter’s sheer strength and extension after contact results in plus raw power to all fields—especially to the pull side. As previously mentioned, the 22-year-old does have some swing-and-miss to his game, which stems from his hyper-aggressive approach, inconsistent load and rushed weight transfer.
Because his pitch recognition is raw from lack of experience (understandably), Puig has a tendency to drift towards his front side, which, in turn, causes him to chase too many breaking balls out of his zone. Although he may never be an on-base machine, he’ll still have to learn to manipulate counts in his favor and recognize when a pitcher attempts to exploit his weaknesses.
Despite his impressive athleticism, Puig’s outfield defense may never be more than solid-average. As expected, his reads and routes are raw, and he hasn’t showcased the instincts in right field that he has at the dish. In that sense, he stands to benefit from additional experience and repetitions in the minor leagues.
Due to his current frame, Puig doesn’t require much physical projection. However, even if he gets bulkier—especially in regard to his lower half—his elite athleticism should still allow him to stay in the outfield. His plus arm strength serves as his strongest defensive attribute and is ideal for a career in right field.
Currently, Puig is an above-average runner who doesn't start quickly, but can really move once he reaches full stride. At the same, as I mentioned in relation to his speed in the outfield, his size may ultimately cost him a grade in his prime. And even though he’s never been regarded as a base-stealer, Puig has been impressive on the basepaths this spring with four stolen bases in five attempts.
The Year Ahead
Puig’s big bat will always be his calling card and already gives him the highest ceiling within the Dodgers’ system. However, just because he’s thrived this spring in big league camp does not mean that he’s ready to open the season in the team’s outfield.
While it’s likely that he’d be able to hold his own in the major leagues right out of the gate, the right-handed hitter’s approach and swing leave room for exploitation against top-flight pitching. Along those same lines, the 22-year-old would seemingly benefit from additional seasoning as an outfielder in the minor leagues.
That being said, the best thing for Puig’s overall development would be an assignment to Double-A Chattanooga to open the 2013 season, where he’ll have a chance to refine his baseball skills against other top-ranked prospects while remaining in striking distance of the major leagues.
However, given Puig’s eye-opening performance this spring, there’s no question that he’ll force the organization to make a difficult decision over the next two weeks.
What it ultimately boils down to his whether Carl Crawford will be ready for Opening Day. Naturally, his absence in the team’s outfield could immediately open the door for Puig to break camp as the Dodgers’ left fielder. However, if Crawford’s elbow is healthy enough to play the field, then it’s doubtful that they will relegate him to a bench role given his massive contract.
At the same time, the Dodgers want Puig to gain experience as an everyday player. Therefore, the chances of him opening the 2013 season in a reserve role is highly unlikely.
The logical course of development for Puig this season would be an Opening Day assignment to Double-A. If he can really mash as consistently as he has this spring, then it would be only a matter of time until the 22-year-old receives a promotion to Triple-A or makes the jump directly to the major leagues.
Either way, expect Puig to spend at least a quarter of the season in the major leagues. However, as an organization hell-bent on winning this season, the Dodgers won’t hesitate to call upon Puig if he stands to immediately improve the team’s on-field product.