07/13/12 12:46 AM ET
Puig eager to get Major League career started
Cuban outfield prospect has first workout at club's Spring Training facility
By Jesse Sanchez / MLB.com
"I am from Cuba."
"I am 21. Thank you."
After almost 10 minutes of answering questions during a Spanish interview with MLB.com at the Dodgers' Spring Training facility, the club's new outfield prospect smiled and switched to English -- a language he had never spoken before Thursday morning -- for three short answers that gave little insight into Los Angeles' new $42 million dollar mystery man.
By all accounts, Puig, who had just wrapped up an hourlong workout that included batting practice, fielding drills and other activities, is eager and a quick study. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound outfielder says he's ready for the big leagues and can't wait to get his Major League career started.
"It feels really great to be here in Arizona training with the team that's going to make my dream come true to play in the Major Leagues," Puig said through an interpreter. "My plan is to play in the big leagues. That's why I am here. I feel I'm ready, but it's up to them. I'm training as hard as I can to get there. "
The Dodgers have a much more measured approach for their prospect. In fact, they tempered Puig's workout to keep him from overexerting himself in Arizona's 105-degree heat. What's certain is that Puig will play in the Arizona Rookie League in the next few weeks, when his paperwork is finalized and his physical conditioning has improved.
Where he goes from Arizona is still up in the air.
"We have not put any timetable on him or any pressure," said Logan White, the Dodgers' assistant general manager, scouting. "We didn't sign him because the Dodgers are at the halfway mark and we need hitting and we need an outfielder and everybody knows that. We didn't sign him to be that guy. This is a long-term thing with him. We are just going to let him take it as he progresses. He'll tell us. He's 21-year-old kid, like a college player, so you think he can be there next year or the next year. It's somewhere along those lines."
Puig's story is well known, and that's quite a feat considering he has only been on the scene in the U.S. for a few weeks. He defected from Cuba last month, landed in Mexico and starred in a showcase in front of Major League scouts just ahead of the adoption of new rules for the July 2 international signing period that would have capped his signing bonus at $2.9 million.
The Dodgers announced his signing on June 29.
In Cuba, Puig played professionally for Cienfuegos during the 2010-11 Cuban Series and hit .330 with 17 homers and 47 RBIs, with a .430 on-base percentage in 327 at-bats. In the playoffs following that season, he hit .370 in 46 at-bats.
Puig did not play for Cienfuegos during the 2011-12 season because he was disciplined for attempting to defect.
As do many Cuban players, Puig chose not to share how he defected, nor did he give the details of his suspension. But the fact that he had not played baseball in a year was hard for the Dodgers to ignore.
But it wasn't enough to keep them from signing him.
"We've been on him from when he played when he was younger. It was not always easy to see him, but he always had the skills, and if you look up his stats in Cuba, he put together really good numbers," White said. "What we saw at the workouts in Mexico was a young man that had not been able to do a lot of baseball activity and had not seen a pitch in a year, and we had to do a lot of reading through it, but what I saw was a guy with good hitting mechanics, short and quick to the ball. He's got a lot of strength, and his bat speed is really quick. "
Puig's seven-year, $42 million contract is a record for a player right out of Cuba. It's bigger than the four-year, $36 million deal Oakland gave outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and the nine-year, $30 million deal the Cubs gave Jorge Soler earlier this year.
The Dodgers are certain he is worth the money.
"There's always inherent risk in this business, whether it's the Draft or international, and I wish there wasn't," White said. "But I never go into anything looking at the risk, because if I did that, I would never sign players, because this is a very tough business. For me, based on all my years of past experience doing this, he has size, athleticism and good hitting mechanics, and when you combine that with his makeup and the level of baseball he played in Cuba, [he's] really good. When I factor everything in, I think the risk is relatively small."
But questions do remain. According to the club's scouting reports, Puig had an above-average arm in the past, and they are optimistic his arm will at least be average when it gets into playing shape. He's always been known for his running abilities, but how his speed translates in game situations in the U.S. is yet to be determined.
What the Dodgers do know is that Puig profiles as a quality outfielder, and his eagerness to learn English is only part of the makeup they really like.
What they didn't know was how funny he is or that he is so popular that he could make a non-Spanish speaker such as White speak that language.
"Chicago is frio [cold], New York is frio. Los Angeles is bella [beautiful]," White said he joked while he was recruiting Puig in Mexico.
After taking a few rounds of batting practice on Thursday, Puig was asked if he wanted to show off his arm.
"I left my arm in Cuba," he deadpanned, "but I will show you what I have now."
Puig made another joke about the Arizona heat, but nobody was laughing when the temperature reached nearly 110 degrees during the workout.
"He always has notes and he wants to learn," said Tim Bravo, the club's director of cultural assimilation, who is teaching Puig English. "He's just soaking up all the knowledge. He makes me laugh all day long and has a great attitude. Imagine if you were in his shoes and come from where he comes from, could you handle that?"
Puig chooses not to think about the past. Instead he wants to focus on the future. For now his present will keep him working out in Arizona.
"When I get to Los Angeles, the fans will get to see the best of me, and I'll be able to help the team," Puig said. "What I can say is that all of us Cubans that are here want to play in the big leagues, and that's why we came. Others can see us play with stars that are here and see we are stars, too."