Buster Olney: Yasiel Puig

Lineup questions that must be answered 

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
Yasiel Puig and Bryce Harper Getty ImagesWhere will 24-year-old slugger Yasiel Puig hit this season? And what about 22-year-old Bryce Harper?
When Joe Torre managed the New York Yankees, he liked to put pen to paper and jot down various lineup combinations to see how they might look and feel. His bench coach, Don Zimmer, would do the same, and they would discuss the combinations they had written out, like two mathematicians discussing a proof.

With lineups, however, there are no perfect answers, and no absolutes. Because the variables are changing constantly. Hitters streak or slump. Opposing managers poke and prod for the vulnerabilities in lineups, with different bullpen weapons. But most managers and general managers think about the possible structure of their batting order constantly, sorting through the quandaries.

Some are unwelcome problems. For instance, Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg must find a place to hit Ryan Howard, in the season after Howard has been told the team might be better off without him.

But other lineups present interesting puzzles, such as those that follow:

1. Who will hit cleanup for the Marlins?

Marlins manager Mike Redmond is experimenting with different lineups.

Deciding year in store for Yasiel Puig 

January, 31, 2015
Jan 31
Yasiel PuigBrian Kersey/Getty ImagesYasiel Puig's lack of consistency could catch up to him this year.
Ned Colletti, the former general manager of the Dodgers, offered the perfect description of Yasiel Puig in the outfielder’s first spring training with the team.

“You can’t take your eyes off him,” Colletti said, as he recounted a typical day of watching Puig -- the power of his swing, the speed, the hyperaggression on the bases, and yes, the mistakes so egregious that you can’t help but laugh.

Puig is a living combination of Bo Jackson and the ’62 Mets -- a set of skills that guarantees him center stage for the rest of his life. There’s no telling what he’ll accomplish in his career,

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Dodgers' makeover extreme -- and needed 

December, 11, 2014
SAN DIEGO -- The new inhabitants of the Dodgers’ front office are well aware of the media portrayal of them as nerds wielding mechanical pencils stuffed into pocket protectors. “The sooner we get past us being the story,” one Dodgers official said, “the better it will be.”

After what happened here Wednesday, however, there is no chance that Andrew Friedman and his staff will able to exist in the shadowy fringes. Not since Whitey Herzog assumed control of the Cardinals and remade them into a track team with a flurry of moves have we seen a front office so decisively alter the composition of a roster and a team.

Based on the choices they have made, however, a more appropriate representation of Friedman’s gang could be as a cleanup crew dressed in hazmat suits, because they have quickly waded into the messiest parts of the organization, from the clubhouse culture to the club’s subpar defense, and taken care of business.

Which is what is needed. The Dodgers' level of dysfunction last season was extraordinary. Manager Don Mattingly is even-keeled and circumspect, and is not someone who overreacts, given his experience of playing in New York in George Steinbrenner’s worst years as owner. But he was so moved, so frustrated by what he saw in the Dodgers' players and their treatment of each other

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Kershaw with no answers for loss 

October, 4, 2014
Clayton KershawRichard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsClayton Kershaw may not get a chance for redemption.
LOS ANGELES -- A brood of reporters and cameramen waited near the locker of Clayton Kershaw, gathered for the expected confessional. With his hair still damp from the shower, Kershaw -- taller than most in the crowd before him -- glanced around the room, in the modestly sized Los Angeles Dodgers clubhouse, and decided to move, probably so he wouldn’t inconvenience his teammates any more on this day.

Kershaw walked into the hallway outside the clubhouse and the media horde followed, and after Kershaw backed against a wall and the cameras and iPhones settled in a semicircle around him, he went about the business of dispensing blame.

On himself. Entirely.

It makes no sense that the best pitcher on the planet blew a five-run lead.

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Yasiel PuigAP Photo/Julie JacobsonEarly results have shown that Yasiel Puig (right) has turned into a better teammate, player in 2014.
LOS ANGELES -- Matt Kemp's mood is measured here daily, like the smog index, and Hanley Ramirez's future is unclear, whether he'll be a shortstop, or even a Dodger. The team's defense is a roll of the dice day to day, and so is the bullpen.

It says something about how far Yasiel Puig has come in his development that as June begins, he has become the model of stability within this organization. Every day, he arrives and asks questions, and every day, he seems to get better and better, steadily eroding the mountain of mistakes that he used to make.

"If you see him play every day," said Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, "he's gone up a notch. We needed him to be a little more refined, to make an adjustment."

He's done that. Which is what all the other Dodgers wanted from him: to stop making the same mistakes over and over and over.

Oh sure, it's very possible that when you watch the Dodgers play the Pittsburgh Pirates on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 ET on ESPN and WatchESPN), Puig could make a baserunning mistake, and yes, he could overthrow a cut-off man. But it is apparent to the other players on the team that Puig, who moved at hyperdrive speed in everything when he arrived, is slowing the game down.

Puig's plate discipline has improved dramatically, as shown by the numbers from FanGraphs. The percentage of pitches outside the strike zone at which he has swung has plummeted from 38.9 percent in 2013 to 27.8 percent this season. The percentage of pitches inside the zone at which he has swung has dropped from 79.6 percent to 71.2 percent, which speaks to his selectivity. Overall, he has swung at 45.4 percent of pitches, after swinging at 54.4 percent last year.

Last season, Puig racked up 97 strikeouts and 36 walks. This year, that ratio has changed significantly: He's got 43 strikeouts and 26 walks, and he's on track to accumulate 74 walks this season, which is pretty remarkable for such an aggressive player in his first full season. He's hitting .340, and is on track for 80 extra-base hits.

The other Dodgers say he is much more open to suggestions, to constructive criticism, than he was when he first arrived.

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DodgersStephen Dunn/Getty ImagesHanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig serve as spark plugs for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
LOS ANGELES -- Hanley Ramirez attends the meetings that the Dodgers hold for the hitters at the outset of every series to go over scouting reports, but he does this to be respectful and polite of the process and not because he actually gleans information. He does not study video, either.

“None,” he said Saturday as he waited his turn in batting practice.

He does not care to know the identity of the opponent's starting pitcher, Ramirez said, until he is preparing for his first at-bat -- and even then, as he watches the pitcher throw to the first batters of the game, what Ramirez only wants to know is how hard the pitcher is throwing, and how much his fastball moves.

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Stadium woes continue for Rays, A's 

April, 5, 2014
Tropicana FieldAP Photo/Chris O'MearaThe Rays have drawn big crowds to Tropicana Field for certain games, but that hasn't been the norm.
On one side of the country, the mayor of St. Petersburg, Fla., met with Tampa Bay Rays president Matt Silverman to discuss the team’s lingering unhappiness with the current ballpark situation, as detailed by Christopher O'Donnell. On the other side of the country, the Oakland Athletics postponed a game, despite the fact there was no rain falling and no rain in the forecast: The field had been left uncovered the night before and was deemed unplayable, as John Hickey writes.

The Athletics’ situation could have happened in just about every other park in the sport. In the time I covered the New York Yankees, I remember a similar situation developing at Legends Field before a spring training game, with the groundskeepers scrambling to prepare the dampened field early in the morning before George Steinbrenner arrived. They had left the tarp off the field overnight, and a passing shower had thoroughly drenched it.

But between this and the ongoing sewage issues, and the field conditions that develop when the NFL's Raiders start playing games, Oakland’s park situation continues to be an embarrassment for all of Major League Baseball, not just the Athletics. As Bill Shaikin noted on Twitter on Friday, it’s now been five years since commissioner Bud Selig formed a committee to study Oakland’s ballpark options, and nobody -- not the other owners, not the commissioner -- have deemed it important enough to make it a priority item for the industry.

Which is their prerogative. If baseball’s owners and Selig don’t feel the need to strong-arm the Giants into making the best possible territory deal they can make and carve out a home for the Athletics in San Jose, Calif., that’s their choice. Until Major League Baseball -- the teams and the central office -- places the Athletics’ status at the top of its to-do list and prepares all the necessary horse-trading, nothing will change.

But when stuff like this happens -- when sewage is running under the feet of players, coaches and umpires -- the fault lies with the whole of MLB, not just plumbers or groundskeepers. This is a glaring case of benign neglect.

The Rays’ situation with St. Petersburg is like a marriage that is all but over besides the legal union. After their Opening Day spread of 31,042 fans, the Rays have drawn crowds of 11,113, 10,808, 9,571 and 14,304 in keeping with the recent tradition of support. Some small-market and mid-market teams have seen their attendance rise and fall according to how much the fans believe in ownership's investment in the team -- the Padres are a perfect example of this -- but the Rays have been a model of consistency in their incredible and improbable success, and yet the attendance continues to drift downward.

The franchise vies with the St. Louis Cardinals for the title of best-run baseball operations department, having won at least 90 games in all but one of the past six seasons, despite working on a shoestring budget while maintaining residence in the hyper-competitive American League East. The team has tried to reboot the fan experience at Tropicana Field, repeatedly. The Rays have tried to make the marriage with St. Petersburg work, but it’s not working.

From O’Donnell’s story:

The Rays are under contract to play at the Trop through 2027 but say they need to explore sites for a new stadium because of low attendances at the city-owned facility. The city has so far refused, saying it has to protect the investment of taxpayers who paid millions of dollars to bring Major League Baseball to St. Petersburg.

“I think we made good progress today,” Kriseman said. “We’re having very open and honest dialogue with each other.”

The hourlong unannounced meeting, the second Kriseman has had with the team since taking office in January, was at the Trop ahead of the Rays’ game against the Texas Rangers.

Kriseman said both sides have agreed to keep talks confidential. Talks in 2013 between the Rays and former Mayor Bill Foster stalled after city leaders claimed that Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig had instructed the Rays not to offer the city any compensation if it broke its contract.

“Both sides have agreed we are going to keep our conversations in confidence and private so we can continue to have a solid element of trust in each other, so we can make progress,” Kriseman said.

Despite a winning team in recent years, the Rays’ average attendance of just more than 18,000 was the lowest in the league in 2013.

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg has suggested several times in recent years that baseball’s other 29 owners were growing restless with the Rays’ lingering stadium problem. Richer teams such as the New York Yankees have to subsidize less profitable teams, including the Rays, through revenue-sharing payments.

Maybe there’s a more tenable site in the Tampa area. Maybe Montreal could be an option. Maybe Portland, or Nashville.

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Yasiel Puig issues are no myth 

March, 27, 2014
Yasiel PuigBrendon Thorne/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesYasiel Puig is undeniably gifted, but the Dodgers have had internal concerns.
We aim to dispel a handful of myths today. Let's get to it.

Myth No. 1: Controversy swirls around Yasiel Puig because a stodgy media picks on him.

The reality: Controversy swirls around Puig because the media's coverage of him reflects the internal view of a whole lot of folks in the Dodgers organization, and that view is that the right fielder makes too many mistakes.

The team loves his energy, loves his talent and -- at the same time -- there is a growing exasperation among some teammates and members of the front office and staff that he makes the same mistakes over and over again, whether it be in his punctuality or with baserunning. No one is out to get him; no one is trying to repress him; no one is trying to make him look bad. They just want him to take care of business.

As Ramona Shelburne writes, Don Mattingly held a team meeting Tuesday to clear the air with Puig, to wipe the slate clean. Mattingly wouldn't do this if he only thought that a couple of sports writers were being unfair.

And while Mattingly retreated from his comments made in Australia in the past couple of days, it's worth remembering that he played his entire career in New York and dealt with the media a whole lot. He understands how to get a message across through reporters. He made his concerns known with sarcasm -- which, again, reflect the concerns of a whole lot of other folks with the Dodgers who aren't going on the record. In the past week, Mattingly has played both the good cop and bad cop roles, perhaps because some of his players (particularly those who speak only English) aren't comfortable telling Puig directly how they feel. This is what the team meeting was for -- to create an open forum. It's a great sign that Puig welcomed the feedback in the way he did.

If he makes the changes some of his teammates want him to make, they'll respect him like crazy for that. If he doesn't, the exasperation will grow.

Myth No. 2: The players' association has been forced into concessions to make the drug-testing penalties tougher.

The reality: The union

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Miguel Cabrera plots against pain 

October, 15, 2013
Miguel CabreraKyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsMiguel Cabrera's battle against constant pain has caused him to alter his swing.
DETROIT -- This is the 25th anniversary of Kirk Gibson's home run in the 1988 World Series, when none of us -- Jack Buck, first and foremost -- could believe what we just saw.

In the moments leading up to that at-bat, Gibson had taken some swings in the tunnel behind the Dodgers dugout, trying to figure out a way he could be functional at the plate. He had a knee injury and a hamstring injury and could barely move, making his usual setup and swing mechanics obsolete. Gibson had to take the working pieces of his body and make it all work.

Miguel Cabrera has been going through the same process in recent weeks. He has some sort of abdominal injury -- a best guess would be a sports hernia -- and he struggles to run, to move, to swing the bat. From Aug. 26 to Oct. 8, Cabrera had a total of two extra-base hits. But Cabrera, like Gibson, has been trying to figure out a way to make it work, and it has not gone unnoticed by the Red Sox that Cabrera has altered his swing mechanics to account for whatever he is feeling.

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Aftermath of Red Sox-Dodgers series 

August, 26, 2013
LOS ANGELES -- Bits and pieces from the Red Sox-Dodgers series over the weekend:

Andre Ethier recalls that he had always wanted to play center field as an amateur ballplayer, but when he got into professional baseball, he was moved to corner outfielder and that was that.

But with Matt Kemp sidelined and the Dodgers in need of a center fielder, Don Mattingly asked Ethier to move there and he has loved it -- and believes it’s been good to be challenged in a different way at this stage of his career.

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A scout who saw Yasiel Puig in spring training provided this report in March:

He plays hard -- really, really hard.

He’s got big-time power, to all fields.

He can run like crazy.

He’s got a great arm.

And, the scout said, with zero emotion, "Other players are going to hate him."

Every game is filled with small gestures of acknowledgment and respect between brothers of the game. Before batting practice, rival players wave to each other across the field. There are handshakes and hugs among players wearing different uniforms. When Derek Jeter walks to the plate today for his first at-bat of the season, he will nod at the home plate umpire and likely tap the catcher on the shin guard with his bat. If he gets a hit, Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer probably will congratulate him and welcome him back.

Before the first pitch of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, Jeter stepped into the batter’s box and looked out at the mound at Curt Schilling, and the two men greeted each other with their eyes, like two boxers tapping gloves before the start of a heavyweight fight.

It’s part of the game and has been for a lot longer than even old-timers like to admit.

What the scout saw in Puig in spring training was someone who played as if he were the only person on the field. Without the niceties and with the body language that makes it clear that he believes he is the best player on the field and everybody else should get the heck out of the way. And it’s working for him. He’s hitting .394 and has been a driving force for the Dodgers in their push from the bottom of the National League West.

Whether you like this or hate it, this is the way he is. This is how he goes about his business, and as the scout predicted, he’s rubbing other players the wrong way -- not only on other teams but also in his own clubhouse.

The Diamondbacks’ Miguel Montero became one of the first players to put voice to it before Wednesday’s game. From Tyler Emerick’s story:
"If he's my teammate, I probably try to teach him how to behave in the big leagues," Montero said. "He's creating a bad reputation around the league, and it's unfortunate because the talent that he has is to be one of the greatest players in the big leagues.

"Right now, I'm not going to say he's the best because he hasn't proved anything yet. Does he have talent? Of course. Does he have the tools? Of course. He's got so much talent, it'd be really bad if he wasted it doing the stupid things that he's doing. You have to respect to earn respect. If you don't respect anybody, you aren't going to earn respect."

Even though Puig has been with the Dodgers for just over a month, the D-backs already have a lengthy history with the 22-year-old. On June 11, Ian Kennedy hit Puig with a pitch in the nose in a game that saw two bench-clearing incidents resulting in eight suspensions. Puig was fined for his role, but he wasn't given a ban, something that irked D-backs players who said he punched former Arizona first baseman Eric Hinske in the back of the head.

Then on Tuesday, Puig was thrown out easily at the plate in the fifth inning but not before he collided with Montero and then stared down the catcher as he walked back to the dugout. Replays showed Montero waving his finger at the rookie, a la former NBA big man Dikembe Mutombo.

"I don't blame him running me over, it's part of the game," Montero said. "The only thing I really don't appreciate is why you have to look back at me. I really don't appreciate that."

Luis Gonzalez wasn’t thrilled with Puig either, after an exchange with him.

How other players feel about him might be irrelevant in the end. Barry Bonds was disliked by almost all his teammates and many opposing players because they found him to be completely self-centered.

In time, we’ll know if any of this perception affects Puig in any way.

He has earned the role of villain, writes Bill Plaschke.

The Diamondbacks bullpen unraveled, Hanley Ramirez came up big again, and the Dodgers drew to within 1½ games of first place.

Around the league

Travis Hafner got hurt hitting against a pitching machine, Brett Gardner got hurt during Wednesday’s game, and now Derek Jeter is on the way back. Jeter said he felt ready.

His return comes with all the necessary qualifiers: He’s 39 years old; he’s not a power hitter; he’s coming back from a significant injury.

But it’s worth remembering that he led the majors in hits last season, and quite simply, he’s better -- even in a diminished state -- than what the Yankees have been playing with.

Joe DiMaggio once had a midseason return from injury that will go down as one of the greatest of all time, as Mike Vaccaro writes.

• Longtime columnist Patrick Reusse thinks the Twins should fire Ron Gardenhire to save him from the misery of this season. From his column:
It’s time to go, Gardy, for no real reason, other than it’s time to go.

This is remindful of Flip Saunders’ long run as coach of the Timberwolves, except he was luckier than you. Flip was fired on Feb. 12, 2005, late in his 10th season, when a team with substantial expectations had quit playing for him.

Flip got to leave rather than stick around to coach through several more years of misery.

Think how great it would’ve been, Gardy, if the Twins had decided to have you take the fall for lost expectations in, say, August 2011, and you didn’t have to stick around to be suffocated in the ensuing misery.

A sizable portion of the local sporting public likes to bring up early postseason exits to further criticize the Gardenhire legacy. From here, it’s identical to Saunders’ coaching legacy with the Wolves.

Saunders went 0-7 in playoff series against superior teams from 1997 through 2003, then went 2-0 against inferior teams in 2004 before losing to the superior Lakers.

The Twins from 2002 through 2010 won one series against a superior team (Oakland in 2002), lost one to an inferior team (Oakland in 2006), and lost five other series to superior teams.

Six division titles, seven runs to the finish, in nine years was outstanding stuff and improbable consistency from a manager.

But this isn’t the same standard as when operating in the Metrodome was dirt cheap, and the Twins became an afterthought for owner Carl Pohlad, and Tom Kelly was basically bulletproof through his long stretch of having no chance.

The Twins lost again Wednesday night, on a walk-off.

Chris Carpenter is making strong progress in his rehab.

• As we waited for the start of the Pirates’ delayed game Wednesday, Curt Schilling mentioned that he thought Francisco Liriano was back -- because of his power stuff and the difference in velocity between his fastball and off-speed pitches. Liriano and the Pirates then ended their losing streak with a shutout of the Athletics.

• The Giants now have as many wins as the Mets and Cubs after getting swept in their own park this week. Matt Cain had the shortest start of his career Wednesday. The only thing really keeping them in the division race is the fact that no team has run away in the NL West -- but the Dodgers have the look of a team that could.

The Giants have lost 14 of 16 and have fallen from a second-place tie to the NL West cellar. Don't blame Buster Posey, though; he's hitting .339 in the stretch, while his teammates are hitting .192.

• As the Mets manage Matt Harvey’s innings, they are making an exception for the All-Star Game, writes Andrew Keh.

Moves, deals and decisions

1. Gene Collier thinks the Pirates need to go out and get a bat.

2. The Phillies need to be realistic, writes Bob Ford.

Dings and dents

1. Jim Leyland doesn’t think Miguel Cabrera’s back issues are lingering.

2. Ryan Mattheus is well ahead of schedule.

3. The injured Reds are hanging in there.

4. Josh Beckett had a rib removed.

Wednesday’s games

1. Zack Wheeler was "the man" against his former team.

2. The Nationals put together a home run barrage.

3. The Red Sox put together a textbook rout, as Tim Britton writes.

AL East

Andrew Bailey threw great the other night, throwing a cutter.

• The Orioles got a huge boost with the return of Wei-Yin Chen.

AL Central

• The Tigers’ offense broke out.

• The Tigers have two relievers they can rely on, writes Tony Paul.

AL West

• Sonny Gray made his major league debut.

NL East

Taylor Jordan is concerned about possibly tipping his pitches, writes Amanda Comak.

NL Central

Shelby Miller is learning how to hang in there.

NL West

• Arizona GM Kevin Towers has regained his voice.

Other stuff

• With all the legal wrangling to come, the Biogenesis suspensions may not be served until 2014, writes Ron Blum.

• Major League Baseball may look into whether Alex Rodriguez has been impeding the Biogenesis investigation.

John Rocker says PEDs made for a better game.

• Pirates announcer Greg Brown is living the dream.

The police report on the Chris Perez bust came out.

• There is really sad news about Darren Daulton.

And today will be better than yesterday.

A burgeoning belief in Yasiel Puig 

June, 7, 2013
Yasiel Puig Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsWith three home runs in his first four games, things are pointed in the right direction for Puig.
Vin Scully has been doing his job since 1950, which means he saw Jackie Robinson steal home, witnessed a perfect game by Sandy Koufax, and was there when Kirk Gibson hit one of the most incredible home runs in baseball history. So if you can amaze the great Dodgers broadcaster, well, that’s saying something.

And this is what Scully said after the latest feat by Yasiel Puig, on Thursday night: “I don’t believe it!” (You can hear it here.)

Puig has been in the big leagues four days and so far all he has done is hit three homers, including a two-run shot, a three-run homer, and then Thursday’s crushing grand slam.

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Yasiel Puig is forcing Dodgers' hand 

March, 25, 2013

Yasiel PuigNorm Hall/Getty ImagesCuban sensation Yasiel Puig has been the talk of Dodgers camp this spring.
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.

Freese's injury

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."

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