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Dodgers' Yasiel Puig impresses countryman

Outfielder, 22, has another big Cactus League game, this time against the Oakland Athletics and fellow Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, who believes Puig is ready for the major leagues.

March 19, 2013|By Dylan Hernandez

PHOENIX — Yasiel Puig is ready to play in the major leagues.

That was the opinion offered Tuesday by fellow Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, who finished second in American League rookie-of-the-year balloting last season while leading the Oakland Athletics to a division title.

"To me and to anyone who's seen what he's done, he's ready," Cespedes said.

Puig is batting .500 for the Dodgers in the Cactus League. The 22-year-old outfielder was four for four in the Dodgers' 7-1 victory over the A's, including a two-run home run in the first inning that cleared Cespedes' head in left field.

Cespedes didn't play in the minors before joining the A's last year. He hit .292 with 23 home runs and 82 runs batted in. Asked whether he thought Puig could do something similar this year, Cespedes replied, "Of course. He can do even more."

Manager Don Mattingly said last week that Puig was "not really" under consideration for the opening-day roster. Asked Tuesday whether Puig could force him to change his mind, Mattingly wouldn't say.

General Manager Ned Colletti was equally evasive.

Part of that is because there isn't a place for Puig in an outfield that includes Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford. Crawford is recovering from elbow surgery, but Colletti thinks Crawford will be ready for opening day.

Puig's youth and inexperience are also a factors. He played only two seasons in Cuba's top league, compared to eight for Cespedes. Puig made only 95 plate appearances last year in the minor leagues.

"At this point, he's creating an expectation that he can't live up to, that nobody can live up to," Mattingly said. "I just try to temper it, where we take a realistic look."

If the Dodgers decide not to include him on their opening-day roster, Puig said, "I wouldn't understand it, but I would have to. Wherever they want to send me, I'll go with God."

In the last week, Mattingly and Kemp have compared Puig to Bo Jackson. In terms of the buzz he has created, Colletti said Puig reminded him of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire when they were breaking into the majors. A National League scout who watched Puig on Tuesday said the confidence he projects made him think of Cespedes.

"He expects to do well," the scout said.

The scout was particularly impressed with Puig's home run at-bat. Puig fell behind in the count, 0 and 2. He worked the count full, then blasted a hanging curveball over the left-field wall.

"He fouled off some tough pitches inside to keep the at-bat alive," the scout said.

Puig has some rough edges, as he showed when his failure to run hard out of the batter's box cost him a double and got him thrown out at second base. The mistake might have cost Puig the cycle, as he tripled in his final at-bat.

Based on his personal experience, Cespedes thinks the greatest adjustment Puig will face will be acclimating himself to major league pitching.

"The quality of pitching is a lot higher here," Cespedes said. "They throw harder. They throw a greater variety of pitches. In Cuba, you don't see the changeup. Here, they use it a lot."

Cespedes and Puig knew each other from their days as players on rival teams in the Cuban league. They spoke before the game Tuesday, asking each other about their families. As it turned out, Puig's parents and sister were visiting him from Miami and were in the stands.

Before they parted ways and returned to their respective dugouts, Cespedes offered Puig some advice.

"I told him that regardless of where he starts, that if they send him down, to play hard and show what he can do," Cespedes said. "You never know when you can get called up."

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Twitter: @dylanohernandez

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