The Dodgers appear to have made a statement with an expensive Cuban signing, but the message they sent across baseball has mostly elicited the same response:
What are the Dodgers thinking?
A source confirmed that the Dodgers have signed Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig, and according to multiple stories, first reported by ESPN Deportes, they gave him a seven-year, $42 million major league contract.
The question around baseball is how the Dodgers could justify awarding such a lavish contract to a player who scouts considered more of a solid than a spectacular prospect. Puig hasn’t played in a year, and aside from a light series of workouts last weekend that were more notable for a circus atmosphere than anything else, he hasn’t been seen (legally) by American scouts since June 2011.
The 21-year-old Puig is a corner outfielder with a thick frame around 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds when he’s been in game shape, but more recent reports from scouts in Mexico—where his agent, Jaime Torres, said last week that he has obtained permanent residency—are that he looked heavier and was out of baseball condition.
That’s understandable given Puig’s history. The righthanded hitter had been one of the better performers in Cuba’s top league Serie Nacional during his brief time on the field, but due to disciplinary action (some say it was due to Cuba’s assertion that he was attempting to defect; others say it was for different reasons), it has been nearly a year since he’s seen high-level competitive action.
One executive called the deal “crazy.” Several others were floored by the reported contract terms.
“I don’t know,” said one international director, echoing several of his colleagues. “I don’t know what’s going on in Dodger land. They must have seen something.”
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. Some scouts say they have gotten some good running times on him before and he’s shown more athleticism in the past, but others haven’t seen him run well. 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.
Due to disciplinary action, Puig did not play in Serie Nacional this past season. However, in his final season in Cuba playing for Cienfuegos in 2010-11, he hit .330/.430/.581 with 17 home runs, six triples and 19 doubles in 327 at-bats in a league with a supercharged offensive environment. He drew more walks (49) than strikeouts (39) and stole five bases in nine attempts. He ranked 31st in on-base percentage and 22nd in slugging in the league.
“Leslie Anderson’s numbers were good in Cuba—where’s he at?” said one Latin American director. “It means nothing. You don’t want their numbers to be bad, but just because they’re good doesn’t mean anything.”
Unlike Athletics outfielder Yoenis Cespedes or even younger Cubans like Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin or Reds lefthander Aroldis Chapman, Puig never played for the top Cuban national team. However, Puig did play for the Cuban national B team at the World Port Tournament in Rotterdam in June 2011, when he hit .333/.419/.481 with a homer, a double, three walks and five strikeouts in 31 trips to the plate as Cuba’s left fielder. Several teams couldn’t believe Puig could command a bigger contract than Cespedes, a well-known star in Cuba.
“You had many chances to see Cespedes play,” said a second Latin American director. “This guy’s kind of an unknown. I don’t know. That’s their flavor.”
When Cespedes left Cuba, the reaction was fairly widespread excitement from teams who viewed him as a potential all-star with immediate major league impact. Given Puig’s age and experience level, he could report to one of the Class A levels.
“Cespedes is a much better athlete, more of a complete package,” said a third Latin American director. “He’s a center fielder, good arm. (Puig has) got power and he runs OK, the bat stays through the zone quite a bit. He’s strong, not quite as strong as (Dayan) Viciedo, but he’s currently got plus power. I don’t know if they even had anyone close to beating them.”
Puig did play at the World Junior Championship in 2008 in Edmonton, where he was teammates with Red Sox shortstop Jose Iglesias and Royals lefthander Noel Arguelles before they defected at the tournament. Puig made the tournament all-star team, as did Toronto’s Brett Lawrie at catcher for Canada and Nationals lefthander Matt Purke for Team USA.
However, since June 2011, major league scouts have not had the ability to evaluate Puig in person or even on video since he missed the most recent season in Serie Nacional. And unlike even Jorge Soler, who signed a huge major league contract with almost zero experience in Cuba’s top league, Puig hasn’t had the time to work out for for teams outside of Cuba.
“For me, you have to have history in order to make that kind of investment,” said the third Latin American director, “and we certainly didn’t have that kind of history.”
When Dodgers president Stan Kasten held the same title in Washington, the Nationals proudly trumpeted their presence on the international market in 2006 by signing a 16-year-old Dominican shortstop named Esmailyn Gonzalez for $1.4 million. That deal embarrassed the Nationals and sent them back for years internationally when it was later revealed that Gonzalez was really 20-year-old Carlos Alvarez.
Puig is a much better prospect than Gonzalez/Alvarez, and there aren’t questions about his identity, but there is plenty of skepticism in the baseball world about the deal. Only this time, the money is exponentially higher.