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Yasiel Puig Has Dodgers Crossing Fingers He Can Become Superstar

Yasiel Puig Has Dodgers Crossing Fingers He Can Become Superstar

Posted by Juan Gavasa on April 06, 2015

First burning question of the season: What time does Yasiel Puig report to Dodger Stadium Monday as the blue curtain lifts on the 2015 campaign in the place Tommy Lasorda still calls Blue Heaven?

Hey, legitimate question.

Why, it was only last year that Puig gave the Dodgers the blues, reporting late for batting practice for the home opener and getting himself scratched from the lineup.

Nothing like the hope and optimism of Opening Day ending with a deep dive into hot water.

Now, one year later, coming off a solid spring during which he impressed the Dodgers with a more serious demeanor and sound work ethic, Puig moves center stage.

This can be his team. This can be his year.

But he has to make it happen.

"I think he's growing like everybody should grow, maturing with age," veteran first baseman Adrian Gonzalez says. "'Maturing' is the best word. He wants to get better. He's shown that from day one this spring."

"You have to see," veteran left fielder Carl Crawford says. "It's still early on. I think he's trying to turn that corner. We'll see when the season starts.

"It's too early to tell right now."

So if you're wondering whether Puig is ready to become the megastar his skills suggest he will be, there's your answer. Get in line. And the line forms right behind the Dodgers themselves.

He is still only 24, just a kid, really.

And he is entering what figures to be only his second full season in the majors. Remember, two years ago, the Dodgers didn't summon him from the minors until June 3.

Puig has packed more thrills and chills into 252 games over the past two summers than the daredevils at the X Games. He has 35 homers and 111 RBI in those contests, posting a career slash line of .305/.386/.502.

But the Dodgers are still trying to figure him out.

Is he the power-hitting run producer who popped for eight homers, 19 RBI and scored 28 runs in his first 38 games in 2013?

Or is he more of a top-of-the-order guy who managed just four home runs and 17 RBI in his final 58 games last summer?

His auspicious debut probably did a disservice to him, in the long run, because he set the bar so high right out of the gate that it was going to be impossible to replicate.

Not only did that heighten expectations, it probably unfairly shortened his adjustment time in the minds of too many people. This was a guy who fled Cuba and was still learning a new culture, a new environment, a new game and the myriad rules and expectations that are different to the major league player than to the player in Cuba.

"He's been good," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly says. "You're not staying in contact on a daily basis like during the season, but in a lot of things we read this winter, he talked about a lot of the things we had concerns with.

"It's been a good camp for him. He's been solid in his work. Again, I think that's what we look for from him, just to mature a little bit. Get a little bit better. Last year was really his first full season in the big leagues. And culturally, it's such a difference for me."

Here Mattingly points out, correctly, that even the kids coming up through the system from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela usually spend time in the Dodgers' Dominican academy and in the minor leagues. Their formative baseball education is nurtured and solidified.

Rarely do players from Cuba receive the benefit of such training. Instead, many—especially the expensive, high-profile Cubans—are fast-tracked to the majors.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

"They go from doing things their way to coming right here," Mattingly says. "There's no transition. I think that's the one thing we've always got to be cognizant about, what they're thinking about the way you're supposed to do things.

"I think what we're looking for is for him to keep blending, keep maturing."

That Puig is another year older and surrounded by what the Dodgers believe is a better clubhouse mix in 2015 point toward the possibility of a big year.

"The people around him in the clubhouse are better suited for him," says Gonzalez, who has been a mentor to Puig during the past two years. "And I'm not talking about Matt Kemp, so don't go that way."

Gonzalez adamantly makes that point because he's been down the Kemp path. When the Red Sox traded Gonzalez to Los Angeles in 2012, gossip that he was part of the problem in Boston's clubhouse trailed him. So the last thing he wants to do is to stain Kemp, who, likewise, has been the subject of much speculation.

Maybe the best way to look at the new clubhouse mix is to look at who's here now instead of who was here then. And maybe start with veteran shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

"We've got a good group of guys in here with him," Mattingly says. "I know Jimmy's been in his ear, and Adrian's always kind of working. [Second baseman] Howie Kendrick is another guy. And [reliever] Joel Peralta.

"We've got guys who have come in who are good not only for him, but for everyone in that clubhouse."

Says Gonzalez: "His focus this year is more, the best way to put it is he's trying to do the right thing."

Gonzalez is of Mexican descent and grew up in both Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego and, as such, did not have many cultural issues to fight through when the Marlins made him the first overall pick in the 2000 draft.

"I personally think, as good as [some of the Cubans] are, coming from a different culture, unless they're a really, really mature person, they need a couple of years to adjust," Gonzalez says.

Part of that reason, Gonzalez says, is because the best teacher is experience, the kind of experience that Puig has attained over the past two years. It has been visible this spring.

"He understands when it's time to go and when it's time to slow down," Gonzalez says. "He understands when it's time to make the throw and when it's time to hit the cutoff man.

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