An evaluator who has logged a lot of spring trainings in Arizona considered the buzz that has surrounded the Los Angeles Dodgers' 22-year-old Yasiel Puig, and decided that the last time he could remember this much interest was back in the mid-80s, when Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire began establishing themselves as stars.
The evaluator wasn't saying Puig is going to be as good as Canseco and McGwire, and he certainly wasn't making a reference to PEDs. He was talking about how scouts and baseball executives see something unusual and different in Puig, because of how hard he plays, because of how he doesn't seem to miss any time he swings at pitches in the strike zone.
"He's very, very intriguing," said the evaluator. "He's still raw in some areas, but the passion with which he plays, and all the tools that he's had. He's been very good."
That's an understatement. Puig is hitting .547 this spring, and actually, he has a higher batting average than on-base percentage (.527). Pitchers have started pitching to him the way they might in the regular season, spinning breaking balls and busting him inside with fastball -- and when they eventually get around to throwing it over the plate, he squares up the ball. He seems to run with such aggressiveness that it's as if he'll keep on running until he gets tagged out.
This is a player who will have almost as many at-bats this spring (53) as he has accumulated in minor league baseball (82), which only further complicates the Dodgers' forthcoming decision on what to do with the right-handed-hitting outfielder.
There is no question that Puig has been the best player in the Dodgers' camp. Heck, he's been the best player in spring training, in either the Cactus or the Grapefruit League. If this decision were to be made the way cuts are made with JV basketball teams, Puig would open the season starting for the Dodgers.
But there are a whole lot more factors involved, and No. 1 is the fact that the Dodgers already have three All-Star outfielders in place, who will make a combined $53.5 million this year -- left fielder Carl Crawford ($20 million), center fielder Matt Kemp ($20 million) and right fielder Andre Ethier ($13.5 million). Crawford and Ethier are each signed for five more seasons, and Kemp is signed for seven more seasons, and it's very hard to imagine the Dodgers would simply bench one of those players based on about 60 plate appearances in March.
The Dodgers' No. 1 priority for Puig right now is that he plays every day, to gain more experience in learning how to play defense, throw to the right bases and run more efficiently. After all, he was signed to a $42 million deal just last summer after defecting from Cuba and barely has any experience playing in the U.S. Unless there is an injury to one of the three starting outfielders -- and Crawford seems to be doing well in his comeback from Tommy John surgery -- Puig may well open the year in the minors.
But even if that happens and Puig is sent down, that would hardly preclude a rapid promotion, especially if Ethier and/or Crawford struggled against left-handed pitchers. Puig can play left field, he can play right, he can play center field, and depending on how the veterans fare, the Dodgers might like to have Puig in the big leagues to give manager Don Mattingly a right-handed-hitting option against lefty starters.
He might like having the competition, too, a player whose presence will push veterans, who will energize the other players. Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson has long talked about the importance of always have at least a handful of newcomers, because they come to the park each day with unaffected enthusiasm and they can't wait to play. Some Dodgers joked with third-base coach Tim Wallach about Puig after Hanley Ramirez was hurt and Luis Cruz was moved to shortstop, asking them if he could start transitioning Puig to third base, to make sure he's in the lineup.
Puig hasn't drawn a walk this spring, which reminded Mattingly of what he used to say about Robinson Cano, who drew only 18 walks in 2006 while hitting .342: What, you're going to tell him to stop hitting .340 and take more walks? Puig has shown absurd strength, yet like Vladimir Guerrero, he always seems to barrel up the ball.
"Sometimes, you get those big guys like Wily Mo Pena and he's got a big long swing," said one Cactus League observer. "But Puig has such a short, quick swing."
It's a quick swing, and it's also a small sample, and might not even be a good sample. But it has everybody in the Cactus League talking, including the Dodgers, as they try to figure out with to do with such a unique talent.
Puig's breakout spring is getting goofy, says his manager.
David Freese's back pain has persisted. From Derrick Goold's story:
Third baseman David Freese was a last-minute scratch from Sunday's game because of recurring back pain that requires an evaluation today to get to the bottom of an injury that has persisted for nearly three weeks. Freese joins Carlos Beltran, who has a small fracture in his toe, as starters who will have three or fewer exhibition games to play.
If, that is, they are available at all before the Cardinals leave Friday evening for Arizona. Freese's aggravation of a previous injury comes a day after closer Jason Motte was diagnosed with a strain in his right elbow.
"It's not the way you ever want to finish a camp," general manager John Mozeliak said. "We just have to take everything day to day, and it can't be a knee-jerk reaction. Let's see where we are in the next couple days."