Is maturing Yasiel Puig best player in NL?

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Yasiel Puig
Is it too soon to call Yasiel Puig the best player in the NL? (Getty Images)

Legendary Los Angeles Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully calls him “the wild horse,” basically because he plays the game with reckless abandon. Strong as a bull, he smashes 450-foot home runs and crashes into outfield barriers like they were portable Little League fencing. Possessing a rocket-like arm, he can fire a ball from right field on the fly to third base in nonchalant fashion. With the possible exception of Giancarlo Stanton, is there any outfielder in the National League better than Yasiel Puig? Is he the senior circuit’s top player – period?

I ask those questions grudgingly because I’ve never been a big supporter of the 23-year-old Cuban phenom. His flamboyant bat flip, which measures higher than any other Latino star, drives me nuts. Puig’s lack of attention on the field — gawking at the crowd instead of the batter — often lead to unnecessary defensive mistakes. Mentally speaking, Yasiel is a child inside a muscular 6′-3″, 240 pound frame. Dodger skipper Don Mattingly, often tested by frustrating encounters with the young man, jokingly calls such moments as “attending Puig University.”

Puig’s personality is appropriate since baseball is frequently called a kid’s game, and he can be seen hanging out at parks, East Los Angeles sandlots and wherever children are present. He loves to pose for pictures, sign autographs and soak up the limelight. Occasionally, Yasiel Puig will help out with fundraisers in the barrio to purchase needed equipment.

“I want to give kids a chance to know a big leaguer,” he explains.

Puig’s financial commitment to these events, however, are a mere pittance compared to the money he spends on big boy toys. A portion of his seven-year, $44 million contract goes toward buying exotic cars, like a custom Rolls Royce with his uniform number 66 on the rims. Unfortunately for Yasiel, he has been busted a couple of times for driving his Mercedes at speeds of up to 110 mph, easily eclipsing a record set by countryman Aroldis Chapman in 2012. As a result, Yasiel has hired a cousin to chauffeur him to Hollywood parties and other events where he always wears a trademark Puig-logo hoodie.

In his defense, Puig has been a victim of circumstances and, like all Cuban defectors, has a story to tell that continues to haunt him. After escaping Fidel Castro’s island utopia and arriving in Mexico, Puig discovered he was a pawn in a human smuggling ring set up by Raul Pacheco, a small-potatoes criminal and businessman from Miami. Also involved in the mix was the ruthless drug cartel, Zetas, and other underworld characters. After the dust settled, Puig was named in a $12 million civil lawsuit, and he has received numerous death threats.

Additionally, playing in a high-profile city like Los Angeles and being a member of an ego-laden club like the Dodgers hasn’t been the best of environments. While Puig had an excellent debut in 2013 and finished second in the Rookie of the Year honors, life in the fast lane with the rich and famous has created enormous pressure. The difference for Yasiel in his sophomore year has been personal guidance that has developed into increased maturity and common sense, at least on the field. His friend and mentor on the Dodgers has been veteran first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, the Tim Duncan of baseball, who differs in many ways from the showboat style of Puig.

“Yasiel and I have a good relationship,” notes Gonzalez, 31, who is known for his strong work ethic and game preparation. “He’s learning to make adjustments and have more patience (at the plate).”

Gonzalez challenged Puig in a friendly competition to see which guy could reach base more in each game, and the idea has had positive results. At one point in the young season, Puig accomplished that feat in 33 straight games. And his slash line of .336/.430/.593 is considerably higher than last year in every category.

Puig is currently leading the popularity contest for next month’s all-star event in Minneapolis, with Stanton trailing in third place by almost 20,000 votes. But there are a hell of a lot more baseball fans in Los Angeles than there are in Miami. Giancarlo’s line is .306/.396/.597 and not quite as sexy as Yasiel’s statistics, although he leads the league with 17 big flies and 56 RBI. It should also be pointed out that Stanton is protected in the lineup by Casey McGehee, while Puig hits in front of Hanley Ramirez and Gonzalez. All things being equal on defense, Stanton is the more impressive player in my book.

Don’t get me wrong. Yasiel Puig is a unique talent, and once he fully matures mentally, he will stack up favorably against any position player in baseball. In fact, I believe Puig could become the best pelotero in Cuba’s history. Of course, fans who remember Hall of Fame first baseman Tony Perez might disagree, at least for now.

What often helps define greatness is leadership. And for Puig, that distinguishing quality is still a work in progress.

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