PHOENIX — Shortly after the Dodgers announced they had optioned Yasiel Puig to their double-A affiliate in Chattanooga, Tenn., Manager Don Mattingly was jokingly asked if he knew what ever happened to the high school basketball coach who cut Michael Jordan.
"We're going to be Dean Smith, who enhanced his fundamentals," a smiling Mattingly said, referring to Jordan's coach at the University of North Carolina.
Puig, 22, was the revelation of this camp, as he batted a Cactus League-leading .526 with three home runs, 11 runs batted in and four stolen bases.
The numbers told only part of the story. His physique drew immediate comparisons to Bo Jackson. When he squared up balls, he hit them harder than anyone else on the team. Fellow Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes said Puig could post better numbers than he did last year, when he finished second in American League rookie of the year voting.
"I kind of look at Yasiel like a Ferrari," Mattingly said. "The motor's there, the body's there, the wheels are there. Everything's there. We just haven't painted it yet. You leave that out in the sun with no paint, then you get it exposed a little bit."
From the time he signed a seven-year, $42-million contract with the Dodgers last year, Puig has made a total of 151 plate appearances between the minor leagues and spring training.
"You really want this guy totally ready as possible when he walks in the door at Dodger Stadium and to not have to go back down again," Mattingly said.
Matt Kemp became a regular player as a 22-year-old and continued to fine-tune his game at the major league level. But the Dodgers of 2007 were nothing like the Dodgers of today, who have All-Star-caliber outfielders in Kemp, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford.
At some point, the Dodgers might decide they want to trade one of their starting outfielders to clear space for Puig. But to determine the right move, the Dodgers first have to learn exactly what they have in Kemp and Crawford, who are recovering from major operations. Allowing Puig to cut into their playing time, particularly Crawford's, would only slow that process.
Sending down Puig is also likely to result in delaying his entry into the free-agent market by a year. If Puig spends 20 or more days in the minor leagues, the earliest he could become a free agent would be after the 2019 season.
Ryu's debut set
South Korean left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu is set to make his first major league start on April 2 when the Dodgers face the San Francisco Giants in their second regular-season game.
The Dodgers were also considering Chad Billingsley, who has a bruised index finger, for that assignment but had to adjust his pitching schedule to maintain roster flexibility. Ryu and Billingsley were both scheduled to pitch Thursday, Ryu against the Angels in Anaheim and Billingsley against the Dodgers' Class-A team in Rancho Cucamonga. But the league office informed the Dodgers that if Billingsley pitches in a game for which fans are charged admission, he can't be put on the disabled list retroactively to March 22. In that scenario, if the Dodgers decide to put Billingsley on the DL, Friday would count as his first day on the list — delaying his first start of the season.
Billingsley is now scheduled to pitch on Friday in a minor league spring-training game in Arizona.
Clayton Kershaw, Ryu and Josh Beckett are expected to start, in that order, in the season-opening series against the Giants. Zack Greinke is scheduled to pitch the first game of the next series, against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Where Billingsley fits into the rotation hasn't been decided.
Dee Gordon was optioned to triple-A Albuquerque, solidifying Luis Cruz's status as the opening-day shortstop. … Kemp will be featured on an episode of "Sesame Street" that will air on Thursday at 10 a.m. on PBS.