Dodgers sign Cuban defector Puig to record deal
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The Los Angeles Dodgers have jumped back into the pool of elite international talent with a resounding splash.
The Dodgers signed outfielder Yasiel Puig to a seven-year, $42 million contract on Friday, a record deal for a Cuban defector and a clear indication the team has rediscovered its traditional aggression in pursuing international players.
"This signing is really one snapshot of a much bigger vision, a much bigger plan," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "We needed to get re-invested in international signings, obviously Asia as well, but Latin America at this time. This represents the first of many. It's a long-term plan for us to continue to build the farm system from every place we can."
Just a few days after getting a look at the 21-year-old Cuban who hasn't played competitive baseball in about a year, the Dodgers persuaded Puig to choose them from among several major-league suitors. The signing is the latest bold financial move by the team's new ownership group, fronted by Magic Johnson and backed by billionaire Mark Walter, to restore the Dodgers to their traditional high-profile status.
"I think the message should be that we need talent in the system," said Logan White, the Dodgers' assistant general manager in charge of scouting. "Did it cost money? Certainly. But if you want to play in the game and make the Dodgers great, it's going to cost money, and it feels great to be able to do that again."
The Dodgers paid top dollar for this particular talent: Puig gets a $12 million signing bonus and will make $2 million in each of his first three seasons. He'll make $4.5 million, $5.5 million, $6.5 million and $7.5 million in the final four years of his deal.
Puig, who is waiting for a visa in Mexico City, will get half of his signing bonus within 30 days after he reports to the Dodgers' camp in Arizona and his contract is approved by Major League Baseball. The other half is payable next Jan. 15.
"To compete at the highest levels for the best players. whether it's Latin America or Asia, to be able to compete and have your scouts go out and do their jobs, that's how this organization really made its mark in the `60s and `70s and onward in the `80s," Colletti said. "It was able to scout and develop some of the best players."
Colletti is putting no timetable on his high-priced acquisition, saying the Dodgers "will let his talent dictate" how quickly Puig makes the majors. He's more interested in getting Puig into the country to see what he can do to restock the Dodgers' talent base.
"It's kind of the same as with any of our draft picks," manager Don Mattingly said. "Talking with Ned yesterday, it didn't sound like he was talking about this guy showing up on our radar like next year or anything. They talk about him being able to play pretty much anywhere in the outfield and a guy that could fly -- but more as a minor league prospect at this point."
Los Angeles also beat a provision in the new collective bargaining agreement that penalizes teams spending more than $2.9 million on international free agents starting Monday with an escalating tax that could make these signings prohibitively expensive.
"It's a rare opportunity," Colletti said. "These types of players with that speed and power combination are very rarely available. All things considered, we had to be aggressive. The chance and the opportunity to do what we did were in a very short period of time. After that, all dynamics change."
Puig has rarely played outside Cuba, but he excelled with Cienfuegos during the 2010-11 season, batting .330 with 17 homers, 47 RBIs and a .430 on-base percentage in just 327 at-bats while mostly playing center field.
The 6-foot-3 slugger sat out last season for disciplinary reasons possibly related to his attempts to defect -- or to his arrest on shoplifting charges while playing in a tournament in the Netherlands last summer. Although the Dodgers didn't disclose the details of his departure from Cuba, Puig has made numerous attempts to defect, and he recently established residency in Mexico.
That's where White saw him last weekend when Puig worked out for several major league teams, reportedly including the Cubs and White Sox. Although Puig hadn't swung a bat in five months and had gained a little weight during virtual house arrest in Cuba, White saw everything he needed to confirm the Dodgers' scouting reports.
White didn't flinch in saying Puig reminds him of Sammy Sosa.
"It's going to take him a little while to work into playing shape," White said. "We went into this knowing [that]. We didn't look at this guy as a guy who's going to impact this team this season. If it happens, great. He came in and said he and I need to do some jogging in Arizona and get in shape, but he's a beast. He looks like a linebacker. He's probably around 230 right now, but ... put him out there next to Matt Kemp in a uniform, and you'll say, `Wow, who's that guy?"'
White also loved Puig's personality and enthusiasm about the game along with his five-tool skills, including speed and a strong throwing arm.
Puig will get in shape at the Dodgers' spring training complex in Glendale, Ariz., when he enters the country. The Dodgers assigned him to their Arizona rookie team and placed him on the temporary inactive list Friday.
Yoenis Cespedes' four-year, $36 million deal with the Oakland Athletics in February was the previous record for a Cuban defector. Outfielder Jorge Soler got a nine-year, $30 million deal from the Chicago Cubs earlier this month.
After the Dodgers dramatically reduced their traditional pursuit of international talent under the budget-cutting ownership of Frank McCourt, they're back in the game. It's a relief to White and his scouts who stayed updated on the top international talent even while knowing they couldn't pursue it.
"It's a long time coming," White said. "The only thing surreal about the signing to me is finally we have an opportunity to do these kinds of things."