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Can MLB's presence in Cuba boost nation's talent pool?
1:25 | MLB
Can MLB's presence in Cuba boost nation's talent pool?
Wednesday April 20th, 2016

“Whatup, b-----s!,” Yasiel Puig shouted as he walked through the doors of the Dodgers’ home clubhouse at 2:30 PM one day last week. It was a revealing moment for a few reasons. For starters, he was punctual: First pitch wouldn’t come until more than 4 1/2 hours later. Second, it demonstrated the 25-year-old Cuban’s rapidly improving comfort with idiomatic English. Third? He was happy.

During his first three seasons in MLB, Puig’s defining characteristic had been his mercurial nature. As a 22-year-old rookie in 2013, he displayed such phenomenal gifts—batting .319 with 19 home runs, 42 RBIs, 11 steals and a set of well-trafficked YouTube compilations of his remarkable throws from rightfield—that it was possible to overlook, or at least tolerate begrudgingly, his flaws: the silly outs, the missed cut-off men, the petulance, the chronic lateness.

By last season, though, the rose was mostly thorns. He hit .255 with 11 homers, 38 RBIs and three steals. He played in just 79 games due to hamstring injuries that, some theorized, stemmed from the increasingly soft 255 pounds he was carrying on his broad frame. In last October’s five-game NLDS loss to the Mets, the phenom who was supposed to be the Dodgers’ most electric offensive threat shorted out. In six at bats, he had no hits.

“He made dumb decisions,” says a baseball source. “It’s easy when you’re young and you’ve got money. The entourage isn’t always good. They want you to go out and party and stuff.” The seven-year, $42 million contract the Dodgers gave Puig in 2012 had seemed a bargain, but after last year, it began to look like a millstone even for the game’s wealthiest club. His act—the tardiness, the moodiness, the selfish blunders—had worn onion-skin thin.

Last fall, Andy Van Slyke, the former major league outfielder and coach and the father of Dodgers outfielder Scott Van Slyke, publicly implied that three-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw had informed his front office that trading Puig ought to be its first order of off-season business. Privately, a Dodgers veteran told friends, “Yasiel is the fricking worst teammate I’ve ever played with.”

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Any leeway that Puig had received due to his unusual circumstances—his abrupt transition at a tender age from a country in which he was poor and oppressed to one in which he was rich and free, and the harrowing and legally fraught way in which he had done it—had closed. Last November’s investigation of Puig for a domestic violence incident in which he allegedly pushed his sister and fought a bouncer in a Miami bar seemed to suggest more of the same. But the league, finding no substantial evidence, declined to discipline him, and this spring, the Dodgers encountered the same Puig as the one with whom Kershaw reportedly made peace during a December goodwill trip to Cuba: one who had changed.

“It’s unbelievable,” reported the veteran who had only months earlier deemed Puig his worst-ever teammate. “Yasiel’s done a complete 180.”

Puig was embarrassed by the shape that his career and reputation (and his body, too) had assumed. He realized that his natural gifts, though prodigious, were no longer enough, and showed up to camp weighing 240 pounds with less than 7% body fat, according to the Los Angeles Times. He reached back out to Tim Bravo, the former schoolteacher who had served as his mentor and translator during his stunning rookie season, and asked him to live with him once more.

“I want him to help me like he did in 2013,” Puig told USA Today in February. “I want to be with the people who were around me when I joined this team in 2013 so I can perform well on the field in 2016, as well or even better than in 2013.” Sources suggest that Puig’s new mentality might also have been influenced by the fact that the issues of legality and personal safety stemming from his Mexican drug cartel-aided escape from Cuba now appear to be behind him.

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Through his first 14 regular-season games, Puig has seemed reborn, and newly disciplined, for the first-place Dodgers. He is batting .347 with one home run, five RBIs and two steals. He seems to have found a balance in which he has retained the singular aggressiveness that made him special, without the miscues that made him maddening. He has yet to make an error. According to Baseball Reference, he has already nearly equaled last season’s career-low 1.1 WAR; he currently sits at 0.9.

It’s a painfully small sample size, and there is still plenty of time for a relapse. A source says that Tim Bravo moved back home after spring training, confident his charge was again on the right track. But Puig is still of an age at which many prospects from the likes of Cobb County, Ga., or Chula Visa, Calif.—and not Cienfuegos, Cuba—are only making their debuts. It isn’t close to too late for a fresh start. Early results for the new Puig, like his clubhouse greeting last week, were promising.

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