Star in making, Puig ready for encore performance
After eventful rookie season, Dodgers outfielder still has room to grow
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- On a back field at the Camelback Ranch complex, the Dodgers took their first real workout swings of the spring on Friday. They're steering toward Australia and, they hope, eventually the World Series that slipped out of their hands last October.
Clustered around one batting cage were Hanley Ramirez, Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier and the guy who kept everyone hanging on each of his 30-plus swings -- old No. 66, Yasiel Puig.
The guy christened as the Wild Horse by Vin Scully, last seen making two crazy throws in the deciding game of the National League Championship Series in St. Louis, launched some long home runs to left field and some hard line drives to right field. He stopped and signed autographs with fans on his way back to the clubhouse afterward, but followed the pattern of his rookie season by declining an interview request in the clubhouse afterward.
For the most part, that's okay with the Dodgers, at least as long as he continues to crush baseballs like he did when he was at his best last season. Don Mattingly still shakes his head thinking about how Puig hit last spring before he was sent to Double-A, where he quickly proved his .517 spring average had been no fluke.
"He was lighting it up,'' said Mattingly, the Dodgers' manager. "You've seen enough springs that you're cautious about young guys tearing it up. If you've seen enough baseball, you've got a pretty good feeling he's not going to hit .600 over the course of the season, as time goes. Then he came up [in June and got 44 hits for the month] and you're thinking, 'Well, maybe.' He was exciting to watch. It's going to be an interesting year for Yasiel.''
From the glimpse Puig provided last season, when he hit .319 and played with a fearless, passionate style that sometimes left him looking foolish, it's hard to imagine there will ever be many dull ones.
"He can do it all,'' said Kemp, the 2011 MVP runner-up who flashed his power in BP, but hasn't been cleared to start running after a tricky ankle surgery. "Not a lot of players can do that. There's only a [small] percentage of players that have all five tools. He's one of those guys. Those guys are tough to come by.''
With Kemp's power absent while he tried to play through a shoulder injury that changed his swing, the Dodgers were nine games under .500 and 8 1/2 games behind Arizona when Puig was called up from Chattanooga. They finished 22 games over .500 and won the NL West by 11 games. He was runner-up to fellow Cuban Jose Fernandez for the Rookie of the Year Award and was disrespected in the MVP vote, finishing 15th.
Clayton Kershaw, the Cy Young winner, and Ramirez were wire-to-wire impact players for the Dodgers, so it wasn't a surprise they ranked ahead of Puig in MVP voting. But it was Puig who changed the team's dynamics.
"He gave life to the team,'' Kemp said. "He gave the team life we didn't have, were lacking. I guess when he made the team younger, he made it a better team. We're happy to have him.''
Puig faces some questions as he enters his first full season. High among them are these:
• Can he remain such a dynamic hitter with pitchers knowing more about him?
It's a normal question for any player who has a huge rookie season, and Puig did hit only .214 in September. There's also the possibility that teams -- especially the Giants and others in the NL West -- will study how the Cardinals attacked him with their power pitchers in the NLCS. Puig was 5-for-22 with 10 strikeouts.
But I haven't talked to anybody who thinks Puig is a flash in the pan. His talent and drive are clear. It's also fair to note that Puig's NLCS showing came against some of the best pitchers in baseball. Give the Cardinals credit for that.
• Will he continue to come up firing every time a runner advances on him and sometimes running the bases until he's out? Will he be true to his own character or pay heed the keepers of baseball's ancient rules of etiquette?
Yoenis Cespedes made the point late last season that Puig's hair-on-fire, cutoff-man-be-damned style is unusual for players in Cuba, as in North America. It's fascinating to watch, but painful for the Dodgers when his aggression leads to mistakes, like in Game 6 of the NLCS.
"Donnie and the staff, we talk about the baserunning, the overthrowing and things like that,'' team president Stan Kasten said. "But you know, the last game of the season was a bad game for all of us, including Yasiel. Before that, we had seen development even over the course of the season that was better than when he first came up. I think that will all fall into place. I wouldn't tell him to do anything different other than keep listening to his coaches, who are on him full-time about the way he can get better.''
Mattingly plans no special clinics for Puig this spring. He'll be treated like every other Dodger as the team works not to take away any of the joy that Puig demonstrates when he plays, even when it sometimes offends others.
One of the turning points of the Dodgers' 2013 season was the tit-for-tat exchange and brawl that followed Arizona pitcher Ian Kennedy drilling Puig in the face with a pitch last June.
"I think you always like when your guys stand up for each other, protect each other,'' Mattingly said. "That's what we saw there. Yasiel gets hit, we feel like it was intentional, we retaliate and in a sense just protect Yasiel. That's what I like, that we protect each other.''
Puig spent the winter in Miami, and was in the headlines when he was stopped by police driving his Mercedes 110 miles an hour on I-75. He's consistently expressed remorse and turned the keys of his car over to a friend. The Dodgers believe this is all part of a maturing process.
• How big of a star does he want to be?
Puig was one of baseball's brightest lights last year and he seemed to never go out of his way to find a microphone or even a television camera. Imagine how big he could become if he is a batting leader and decides to sell himself a little bit?
Puig spends time in Miami with LeBron James, who isn't exactly a wallflower when it comes to cultivating and marketing an image. Kasten says Puig has talked to Dodgers part-owner Magic Johnson and others involved with the Lakers about building his brand, which he put into action by flying to Los Angeles for community events during the off-season.
"He's talked to Magic a lot about the kind of person he can make himself into if he's smart about it,'' Kasten said. "That's why he was more disappointed than anyone about the setback he had, and that's how he viewed the Florida incident, as a setback. He's worked hard to go past that.''
Cuban baseball players rarely interact with reporters, which leads to a suspicion about the media. Puig had critics in both languages during his rookie season, but may now have the perfect platform to unveil his smile.
The Dodgers are about two weeks away from launching SportsNet LA, which will be the first 24/7, 365-day a year American channel devoted to one sports team. There is no shortage of Puig content being planned for it, said Kasten, although his cooperation is an unknown.
"This is the best possible vehicle players could have, if they want to express themselves, if they want to portray themselves in a way,'' Kasten said. "Or if they want to back off. We can do it at whatever level works for an individual player because all of it works for the Dodgers and Dodger fans.''
How wild of a ride will Puig take the Dodgers and those fans on this year? If it's anything like the one he's coming off of, it will be must-see TV.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.