Dodgers don't have room for breakout star Puig

Mattingly compares Cuban defector to Bo Jackson, but LA sends hot-hitting outfielder to minors ... for now

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Sure, there are qualifiers. There always are.

Arizona is a great place to hit. He's on the hottest streak of his life. And if he had been facing him in the regular season, not in late March, the White Sox's Jake Peavy wouldn't have started Yasiel Puig with a "get-me-over sinker on the first pitch,'' to quote Peavy.

But still …

Again, in Peavy's words, "That ball came by me awfully hard.''

Yes, it did. And then Puig hustled into second base for a double when he easily could have been satisfied with a screaming single. In his next two at-bats, he dropped a broken-bat bloop into right field off hard-throwing Matt Lindstrom and grounded a two-hopper through the hole on the left side off Brian Omogrosso.

Puig won't make the Dodgers' opening-day roster. He was optioned to Double A on Tuesday. But no one in Arizona or Florida did more this spring to stamp themselves as a future star than the Cuban outfielder, No. 66 on the Dodgers' roster.

The 22-year-old neophyte was a human highlight reel Saturday against the White Sox. His 3-for-3 sent his batting average climbing upward from .520 to .529, then .539 and finally .547. It was at .526 after he went 0-for-2 on Sunday and 1-for-2 on Monday, both times coming off the bench to replace Carl Crawford, and his OPS was an astronomical 1.350.

"It's kind of like Little League,'' Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "It's like (he's) the big kid in Little League.''

Puig is a big kid — listed at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds but probably 10 or 20 pounds heavier. You can't tell it by the way he runs, however, which is why Mattingly compares him to Bo Jackson.

He definitely looms large when he steps into the right-handed batter's box, which is why Angels ace Jered Weaver compared him to Frank Thomas. Ned Colletti, the Dodgers' general manager, says the highest compliment to Puig is that everyone stops what they're doing to watch when he is in a game. One scout says he is ahead of where the A's Yoenis Cespedes was at this time last year.

Puig hits monstrous home runs in batting practice and runs down balls in the outfield, showing off the ability to play left or right field. The only thing he hasn't done this spring is walk, and Mattingly isn't too concerned about that.

"I heard that about (Robinson) Cano one year,'' the former Yankees coach said. "Brian Cashman said, 'What are we going to do about Cano?' He hit .340, but he only walked 13 times. I said, 'What am I supposed to do with that?' When you hit everything that you swing at hard, you don't get a lot of walks.''

For the Dodgers, the tough part of the Puig situation will be finding a way to make room for him in their outfield. Until they can make a trade or someone suffers a bad injury, they are locked in to an outfield of Crawford, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, with no one coming off the payroll before the end of 2017.

Because general manager Ned Colletti and Mark Walter's ownership group coveted Adrian Gonzalez and, to a lesser degree, Josh Beckett, they agreed to take Crawford from the Red Sox in a staggering nine-player trade in August. Crawford was on the disabled list after Tommy John surgery and had flopped horribly since signing a $142 million contract with Theo Epstein's Red Sox after a huge speed-power year with the Rays in 2010.

Puig had signed with the Dodgers only two months earlier, and Ethier, who had been seen as trade bait, had received a five-year, $85 million extension only two weeks before the Puig signing. Kemp's $16million deal wasn't yet a year old. Walter and his group, including Magic Johnson and longtime MLB and NBA exec Stan Kasten, wanted flash and scout Mike Brito (the radar gun-holding Dodger Stadium fixture who discovered Fernando Valenzuela, among others) had been sold on Puig since watching him and Soler play on Cuba's junior team.

"You don't need to be a genius to see the talent with a guy like this," Brito told MLB.com this spring.

Other teams wanted Puig, too, with the Cubs and Orioles believed to have been the most involved. But after a three-day tryout in Mexico City, Dodgers scouting director Logan White signed off on a package that will look like a bargain if Puig has not been a mirage appearing out of the desert this spring.

The Dodgers also are thrilled with Korean left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu, whom they outbid the Cubs to acquire over the winter. They won bidding rights with a $25.7 million posting price paid to the Hanwha Eagles and then signed him for another $36 million.

While flashing skills in the field and at the plate, the heavily built Ryu held the White Sox to one hit over seven innings in the same game in which Puig almost decapitated Peavy.

"What I really think,'' Mattingly said, "is that this guy is a really good athlete. He may not want to show it to us all the time. … He does all the things we ask our guys to do.''

Ryu joins a rotation headed by Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke (a concern at the moment because of a mysterious elbow situation) and Chad Billingsley. Peavy says he was challenged facing the Dodgers' lineup because of its abundance of All-Stars, and he points out it will only get better when Hanley Ramirez recovers from a thumb injury suffered in the WBC championship game.

"That's going to be a good team, man,'' Peavy said.

How long until Puig is part of that team?

Nobody really knows, but if he stays in the minors all season it probably means the Dodgers are coasting to 95 wins without him. Who doesn't need a .526 hitter?

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers

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