Yasiel Puig's One-Year Rise from Cuban Phenom to MLB Superstar
When the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Yasiel Puig, he didn't even know what color they wore.
A true story, according to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times. And also a relevant one on this lovely Friday—the one-year anniversary of Puig's union with the Dodgers.
And my what a year it has been.
This time last year, Puig was a relative unknown. For most fans, he was just some Cuban guy with a name nobody could pronounce. Now, he's one of the biggest stars in baseball, a player known as "ManBearPuig" and the inspiration for at least one rock band.
It's a fantastic story, and there's only one thing to do with fantastic stories: go back and relive them.
June, 2012: The Signing That Nobody Understood
On June 28, 2012, the news was reported by Enrique Rojas of ESPNDeportesLosAngeles.com: a young Cuban outfielder named Yasiel Puig had signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers for seven years and $42 million.
And the world went: "Huh?"
Most people were saying "Huh?" because they didn't know who Puig was. He had been a star in the Cuban National Series, hitting .330 with 17 home runs and 47 RBIs in the 2010-2011 season. But unlike fellow Cubans Yoenis Cespedes and Aroldis Chapman, Puig hadn't played on a national stage in the World Baseball Classic and, in fact, had played very few games of any kind outside of Cuba.
Those in the know were saying "Huh?" for a different reason: they just didn't get it.
Isn't that right, Rany Jazayerli?
I thought the SCOTUS decision was the biggest surprise of the morning, and then I learned Yasiel Puig got $42M from the Dodgers. WHAT?!— Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) June 28, 2012
He wasn't alone.
ESPN's Keith Law wrote in an Insider post that Puig's monster contract seemed to be a "bizarre overreaction" to the upcoming international spending cap, which would limit the amount of money teams could spend on international players.
Ben Badler of Baseball America was even more baffled, writing: "What are the Dodgers thinking?"
Badler gave a full rundown on what sort of player scouts saw Puig to be, and the player they saw wasn't worth anything close to $42 million:
Those who have seen Puig seem lukewarm on his talent. He has good bat speed and generates plus raw power, but scouts have expressed concerns about his hitting approach...He projects as a corner outfielder and has drawn question marks from scouts about his defensive instincts. He is an interesting prospect with raw talent, but for several teams, he wouldn't have even been a first-round pick if he were in the draft.
On top of his supposedly iffy talent, Puig was also rusty. Due to disciplinary action incurred after a failed defection from Cuba, he hadn't played baseball in over a year.
Essentially, the Dodgers paid $42 million for a fixer-upper, hence the reaction the signing got from the experts. To paraphrase Vin Scully: You talk about a roll of the dice—this was it.
Then again, maybe not.
"I don't know," said one international director Badler spoke to. "I don't know what's going on in Dodger land. They must have seen something."
Late Summer to Fall, 2012: The Legend Takes Shape
When the Dodgers signed Puig, they surely envisioned him in their starting outfield sometime in the near future.
But not in the very near future. The first order of business was to just get Puig back out on the diamond, and the Dodgers decided to start him out slow by sending him to their rookie ball affiliate in early July.
Rookie ball proved to be no match for Puig. He played in only nine games with the AZL Dodgers, and in those he collected 12 hits in 30 at-bats for a .400 average. Of those 12 hits, four were homers and another three were triples.
The Dodgers had seen enough. They made the decision to move Puig up the ranks, promoting him to High-A Rancho Cucamonga in early August.
"He is certainly on a fast track," wrote Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times, "though it's not all that surprising. Not for $42 million."
Dilbeck's thinking at the time was that Puig's fast track would only take him so far. Some action at Double-A or even Triple-A was not out of the question, but action at the major league level surely was.
But Puig managed to make that a tough call. He kept hitting with Rancho Cucamonga, compiling a .327/.407/.423 slash line in 14 games. He also got to impress his boss for the first time.
"He's got a lot of pluses—power, speed, arm. He's still a lot of a work in progress. He's a very intriguing player," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti told Bill Shaikin of the Times. He also added: "We don't have anybody in the system that can square a ball up like he does."
Shaikin wrote that Puig was generating enough buzz to have people at Rancho Cucamonga whispering about a potential major league call-up when rosters expanded in September. But the Dodgers avoided pushing that particular button, and played the rest of the season without Puig.
But if the whole idea was to get Puig back into playing shape and to establish him as a legit major league prospect, mission accomplished. At the very least, Puig had the experts convinced.
Baseball America's post-2012 scouting report of Puig (subscription required) had this to say: "Puig has the tools to justify his contract. He's a physical specimen, generating explosive bat speed and plus-plus raw power."
MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo was also on board:
Puig’s best raw tool is his power, which is easily plus, though it may not be ready to show up consistently in games just yet. He’s shown plus speed and the Dodgers think he should be able to steal some bases. With the potential to hit for average and power with an above-average arm and good speed, the Dodgers hope he can develop into a Sammy Sosa-like impact player at the big league level.
As positive as the reviews were, however, they were not 100-percent positive.
The Baseball America scouting report on Puig mentioned that scouts weren't very enthused with Puig's maturity, as he had a tendency to rub people the wrong way while he was playing with Rancho Cucamonga.
Shaikin described an incident that shed some light on this sentiment:
After [Puig] 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.
Sound like any other uber-hyped, uber-talented outfielder you can think of?
For their part, the Dodgers weren't too concerned with the perceived maturity issues. Scouting director Logan White brushed them aside and put a positive spin on Puig's attitude.
"I think he'll have a lot of flair. I think the fans in L.A. will like him," said White.
Spring Training: The Legend Catches On
After gaining so much steam during the late summer and the fall, the Puig hype machine found itself going over some speedbumps during the winter.
In early October, shortly after the major league regular season ended, Puig was diagnosed with a staph infection in his elbow. It wound up sidelining him for a few weeks, and would rob him of a chance to further his development in the Arizona Fall League.
Puig did go on to play in the Puerto Rican Winter League, but not particularly well. By the time he declined an invitation to go to the Dodgers' annual winter camp, he was only hitting .232 with one homer.
Still, at least Puig was playing, and he had a clear goal in mind. When Ralph Pagan Archeval of ESPNDeportes.com asked Puig if he was looking to be in the majors in 2013, Puig responded: "I plan to be there next year."
When spring training came around, Puig made it abundantly clear that he had the ability to follow through on this goal.
Puig made his spring training debut with the Dodgers on February 23 and started hitting right away. By the middle of March, his situation was enticing enough to make Steve Dilbeck of the Times ponder if he was going to force the Dodgers' hand and crack the big club's Opening Day outfield.
That seems ridiculous, I know. It’s the middle of March. His situation demands perspective. The Cuban defector is as green as a player can be.
Yet while everyone has nodded heads in approval while waiting for his lack of experience to show, all he has done is continue to crush the ball.
The Dodgers soon decided that Puig would be opening the season in the minor leagues. But his hitting didn't stop, and neither did the praise. Eventually, it got to a point where even uniformed people weren't afraid to pay Puig the best compliment an athlete can get.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anybody do something like this,” Mattingly told the Times. “You don’t see this kind of package. This is a Bo Jackson-type package you just don’t see.”
"He's a monster man," center fielder Matt Kemp told the Times. "He's big. When everybody sees him, they think about Bo Jackson."
Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports scoffed at the comparisons to Bo Jackson, remarking that Jackson ran better and had an RPG for an arm. But even while doing so, Passan ventured to argue that Puig did indeed belong in the club's plans for Opening Day.
Executives from other teams also couldn't help but admire Puig, as ESPN's Jayson Stark noted:
An exec of one team that trains in Ariz says Yasiel Puig is so special #Dodgers "should almost be rooting for Ethier or Crawford to go down"— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) March 28, 2013
Puig ended the spring season with video-game numbers: a .500 batting average, a 1.328 OPS and three home runs. Yet the Dodgers did what they promised they would, angering Dodgers fans and the rest of humanity at large by optioning Puig to Double-A for the start of the season.
"You really want this guy totally ready as possible when he walks in the door at Dodger Stadium and to not have to go back down again," said Mattingly.
Hmmm...In retrospect, good call.
June, 2013: The Legend Arrives
When Opening Day came, the Dodgers featured a starting outfield of Carl Crawford in left, Matt Kemp in center and Andre Ethier in right—just as it looked on paper before spring training.
Their best player from spring training, meanwhile, was down at Double-A Chattanooga and apparently not very happy about it.
Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times wrote earlier this month that Puig was sulking with Chattanooga, and that he "butted heads" with coaches. His situation was not made any better by a thumb injury that put him on the seven-day disabled list, and that was soon followed by an arrest for reckless driving.
On the bright side, Puig was hitting. So well, in fact, that he had the Dodgers pondering by late May whether it was time to call him up. As Hernandez reported:
#Dodgers have discussed calling up Yasiel Puig and Joc Pederson, according to Don Mattingly.— Dylan Hernandez (@dylanohernandez) May 22, 2013
Not long after, their hand was forced. Kemp was placed on the DL in late May with a hamstring injury, and Crawford was on his way there in early June with a thigh strain.
The Dodgers made the call on June 2:
#Dodgers today optioned Matt Magill and will recall Yasiel Puig tomorrow.— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) June 2, 2013
From there, we all know the story, right?
Puig got things rolling in his debut with a brilliant game-ending double play on his assist from right field. Then he hit two home runs in his second career game, and a grand slam a couple days later. He had four home runs through his first five games, and Puigmania was officially underway.
Puig is now almost a full month into his major league career, and his numbers are still astounding: a .436/.467/.713 slash line and seven home runs. Everyone knows he won't be this hot forever, but that hasn't stopped people from clamoring for Puig to be given a high honor: an All-Star appearance.
Jeff Passan is on that bandwagon:
Said it nine days ago, will keep saying it until July 16: Yasiel Puig should be an All-Star. http://t.co/jJW94hrdML— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) June 25, 2013
So is Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal:
And SI.com's Jay Jaffe:
New @ Puig, er, Strike Zone: making the case for Yasiel Puig on NL All-Star squad http://t.co/gTegDcZlp7— Jay Jaffe (@jay_jaffe) June 20, 2013
All for a player who has only played in 26 games, and will only have played in about 40 by the time the All-Star break comes.
It should be absurd, but it's not. Puig really has been that good, and he really is that big of a sensation. Once an unknown with a funky name, Puig has ascended to the top of Major League Baseball's Mt. Olympus.
And did I mention it only took him a year to get there?
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
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