The Yasiel Puig era is beginning tonight for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Mired in a disappointing beginning to the 2013 season, the organization is looking to the 22-year-old outfield prospect in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle. A Cuban defector, Puig has just 63 games of professional experience under his belt in North America but he’s made the most of his time in the minor leagues — at least in terms of his results at the plate. At the Double-A level this season, the young hitter has produced a .313 batting average with 23 of his 46 hits going for extra bases.
Puig’s recent hot streak — .355 average, six extra base hits, four steals and a 5-5 walk-to-strikeout rate in his last 10 games — likely helped to seal the deal once injuries proved to be too much to handle for the Dodgers’ 25-man roster. Trips to the infirmary have depleted the outfield depth on the roster and the loss of impact hitters such as Matt Kemp and Hanley Ramirez has taken the thump out of the lineup. The Cuban should help in both regards.
At the beginning of the season, I ranked Puig as the fourth-best prospect in the Dodgers system, but considered him for the first overall ranking. At the time though, I commented that he was very much “an enigma” with just 23 games of experience in the minors and not enough amateur or international background from his time in Cuba for me to comfortably jump on the bandwagon. He narrowly made my Top 100 prospects list, checking in at No. 99 and well below fellow 2012 signee and Cuban Jorge Soler of the Cubs, whom I saw more of last season. Baseball America ranked Puig second overall in the Dodgers system, while Baseball Prospectus had him first overall, and Keith Law of ESPN.com had him third. In other words, we were all a little unsure of what to expect from the prospect but we knew he had talent.
Our very own Mike Newman saw Puig in the flesh a few times earlier this season and came away with a mixed bag of emotions after watching him play. Mike recently wrote, “But is Puig ready? From a baseball standpoint, yes. From a maturity standpoint, perhaps not.” He noted that the young player’s poor body language, lack of consistent hustle/laziness, and propensity for showing up the umpires all cast an unnecessary shadow on Puig’s otherwise impressive resume and collection of tools. During a controversial article published recently, Mike pointed to some of the things that the prospect needed to improve upon to take his game to the next level.
My first impression of Yasiel Puig was he’s the “next generation” Yoenis Cespedes. Puig is bigger, faster, stronger and younger than the Athletics slugger. However he profiles with the same glaring weakness Cespedes did when scouting him in Arizona — Breaking ball recognition.
Throughout the game, Puig flailed wildly at sliders which led to an early strikeout, as well as a two-strike count in his second plate appearance. Eventually, he gave up on the pitch and sat “dead red” fastball.
He later went on to mention Puig’s lack of patience, as well as some rough areas in the field and on the base paths. In preparation for writing this article, I pulled up video on the Dodgers rookie from mid-May. In his first at-bat of the game against the Reds Double-A affiliate, Puig turned around a first-pitch fastball for an absolute rocket of a single back up the middle. He was then thrown out trying to steal second base on a close play to end the inning. In his second at-bat, he took a four-pitch walk and stole second base on the first pitch to the next batter — almost as if to prove himself. He later scored on a single.
In the top of the sixth inning, Puig fell behind in the count 0-2 after flailing badly at a soft breaking ball. The Double-A hurler and fringe prospect then threw a mistake fastball that got too much of the plate and, despite being hit off the end of the bat, was deposited over the left field fence on another line drive. He finished off the extra-inning game with a fly-ball out, intentional walk and single. It was a solid showing by the man-child who physically reminds me of Albert Pujols when he was playing in the Midwest League (A-ball) as a little-known, 20-year-old prospect.
I fully expect Puig to have a strong start to his MLB career. He’ s flashed four or five tools, the ball makes that special sound off his bat that makes scouts weak at the knees, and he’s physically mature. The big question mark for the young player will be his emotional maturity level and how well he’ll handle true adversity for the first time and under such an intense spotlight in a baseball savvy marketplace.
One thing is for certain, it will be an entertaining show.