Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig hits a three-run home run against the Indians… (Mark Duncan / Associated…)
PHOENIX — — Count Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti among those who have been impressed with outfield prospect Yasiel Puig.
"He's been very exciting," Colletti said of the 22-year-old Cuban defector, who hit a three-run pinch-hit homer Sunday in the Dodgers' 5-1 Cactus League win over the Cleveland Indians. Puig raised his spring batting average to .421 and leads the team in runs with five.
Manager Don Mattingly has another word to describe Puig.
"Raw," he says.
In reality, Puig probably falls somewhere between the two adjectives.
A linebacker-sized 6 feet 3 and 245 pounds, he's among the fastest players in camp. And his home run Sunday, his first of the spring, was a laser beam that probably would have decapitated anyone who got in its way.
But only a couple of months ago, he was struggling in the Puerto Rican winter league, batting .232 with more strikeouts (19) than hits (16). That leaves the Dodgers in the awkward position of embracing Puig's potential while at the same time tamping down their expectations.
"You've got to like how he plays," Colletti says of Puig, whom the Dodgers signed to a seven-year, $42-million contract — a record for a Cuban amateur — last summer. "He's got a plus arm, plus speed, plus power.
"[But] as the spring goes on, as players who are going to make their big league pitching staffs and veterans that are going to continue to pitch for big league pitching staffs, as they get more refined and start working on more than just building up arm strength, it will be another chapter to see."
In other words, the Dodgers don't want to get too excited until they see how Puig does against major league talent. If he passes that test, though, that could make things even more awkward for the Dodgers, who had planned to send Puig to triple-A Albuquerque for more seasoning.
The Oakland Athletics faced a similar dilemma last year with another Cuban defector, Yoenis Cespedes. They signed him days before spring training began, and six weeks later he was starting the season opener in center field. Cespedes went on to hit .292 with 23 home runs and 82 runs batted in, finishing second to the Angels' Mike Trout in voting for the American League rookie of the year award.
"Anything's possible," said Mattingly, who has begun fielding more persistent Puig questions now that Carl Crawford's availability for the Dodgers' opener is in doubt. "But I'm not really going to start going into hypotheticals at this point. We'll see what happens."
For now, Puig is giving his manager cover.
"I'm preparing to get better every day," he said. "The coaches will decide where I'll play and if I'll be in the big leagues.
"I'm going out every day to do the same thing. And they can see that and do what they want with us."