Cuban Crossovers: Yasiel Puig

This week I’m writing a series on a number of high-profile Cuban players who defected to the MLB, focusing primarily on expectation and payoff, to varying degrees. There is sometimes a tendency to over-hype international players, especially when the comparison is made based on Cuba’s somewhat spotty statistics, but the scouting has been generally solid, and a number of recent signings have worked out for Major League clubs.
Yesterday’s subject, which you can read here, was rookie slugger Jose Abreu.
Today I turn to the biggest showman of the bunch, Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig.

Puig took the league by storm last year after seemingly (to the casual fan) coming out of nowhere. In fact, the high level of hype surrounding Puig really only got going once he was in the majors. There wasn’t the same type of anticipation as for fellow countrymen Yoenis Cespedes and Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez.

Part of the equation is that Puig was 21 at the time, had not played for the Cuban national team and scouts had seen relatively little of Puig. Thus Puig was far from being considered one of the safest international signings, as Ben Badler of Baseball America reported two years ago. In fact, many scouts were confused by the news. “They must have seen something,” one international director said at the time. As Badler noted at the time, Puig’s scouting report was a mixed bag:

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.

Puig was compared, not so favorably, to Cespedes — and perhaps part of the reason the deal met such criticism was the amount of hype circulated by the Cespedes signing. Now, of course, both players are central to the highlight reel multiple times a week.

According to the records, Cespedes is five years older than Puig. Perhaps some of the disbelief surrounding the deal was because it was a lot of money for production that was, at the time, far from a sure thing. Cespedes had shown over a number of years (and a famous YouTube video) what kind of player he was. Puig was an unknown entity.

To be sure, determining how well prospects will develop is much an art as a science. The Dodgers, who under new ownership became much more free with cash, opened the checkbook and took a gamble. To their credit, they saw what the average sports fan did not see until the following year.

This case also leads to further discussion of locking in young prospects before they even take an at-bat in a major league game. In 2010 the Nationals gave Bryce Harper $9.9 million over five years (including signing bonus) after drafting him. Considering the signing bonus a front-loaded first year salary puts a value of just under $1 million on each of the following four years.

Puig’s contract was interesting because of how many scouts thought he would not be ready soon. He received far more money than Harper with less consensus about his skill. Both players saw an accelerated time through the minors, and made an impact for the big-league clubs that signed them within two years. Credit must be given to the Dodgers for making the potentially risky decision Washington never had to make.

There remain all sorts of questions about international residency outside of Cuba at the time for Puig and fellow countryman Jorge Soler, who was signed around the same time. MLB has since put more restrictions on Cuban signings, restrictions which would have made it more difficult for the Dodgers to sign Puig. The distinction between cause and effect is not clear — whether the June 2012 deals were accelerated because of imminent restrictions or the deals themselves pushed the league to effect changes — but regardless, the Dodgers benefited from the old rules.

What Puig has done is almost unnecessary for discussion here. He’s made such an impact on the league even the casual SportsCenter viewer is instantly familiar with the player discussed at first mention. The 23-year old has electrified crowds with his athleticism and showmanship. He hasn’t been the biggest home run threat, but his career average sits over .310. It was a savvy, gutsy move for the Dodgers that has paid off so far.


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