Baseball a Welcome Distraction for Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers

Mike Rosenbaum@GoldenSombreroMLB Prospects Lead WriterApril 18, 2014

Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig warms up at the batting cage prior to a baseball game against the San Francisco Giants on Saturday, April 5, 2014, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
Alex Gallardo

Reports this week detailing Yasiel Puig’s harrowing escape from Cuba have painted a vivid picture of the 23-year-old’s personal challenges since defecting.

According to an investigative report by Scott Eden of ESPN The Magazine, Puig has received death threats from the human traffickers who arranged and assisted the Dodgers outfielder in his 2012 defection from Cuba to Mexico. The story first came to light earlier in the week in a report written by Jesse Katz of Los Angeles Magazine.

The ESPN The Magazine feature revealed that Puig was held by human traffickers on an island off the coast of Mexico until a Miami businessman hired a rival gang to conduct a late-night raid. Following his rescue, Puig was taken by ferry to Mexico City, where he was then granted residency by the Mexican government. Shortly thereafter, the Dodgers signed Puig for seven years and $42 million, locking him up through the 2018 season, and gave the then-21-year-old a $12 million bonus.

According to the report, Puig owes the Miami businessman—who is also said to be a known as a small-time criminal—who orchestrated the raid 20 percent of all his baseball earnings.

Apr 13, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig signs autographs prior to the game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Puig has been one of baseball’s more divisive players since he joined the Dodgers last June, as he’s dropped jaws with his immense natural talent and ability to impact games but has also been criticized for nonchalant play and disregard for team policies. Manager Don Mattingly has already benched Puig this season after he showed up late for a game.

However, with the news of Puig’s escape and alleged debt to traffickers, the focus has shifted from the outfielder’s on-field performance to his safety.

While the Dodgers’ front office has remained quiet on the issue—which also raises questions about how much the organization knew of Puig’s situation at the time of his signing—the ESPN report revealed that the team hired a security detail for Puig last June days after his arrival in the major leagues.

According to Mattingly, the new details of Puig’s defection from Cuba and ongoing situation came as a surprise (via Mark Saxon of ESPN Los Angeles):

If it was news to anyone above me, I don't know that, but it was definitely news to me, ... I think it was news to anybody in our clubhouse. I know a lot of people check in on Yasiel that know a lot more than I do. I'm the manager of the baseball team. I'm not running the whole organization. I'm not the president or ownership.

Mattingly also acknowledged his concern for Puig’s safety and general well-being (via Saxon):

If you care about Yasiel, you worry about it, ... There's some serious stuff that he has to deal with. I think you have to worry about it if you care about him as a person. You worry about what he's going through.

The Dodgers skipper’s words also raise questions regarding how Puig’s situation might affect both his personal performance and that of his team moving forward.

Puig, much like the organization’s front office, has been understandably hesitant to speak openly about the report. He released a statement via earlier this week through agent Adam Katz stating:

I’m aware of the recent articles and news accounts. I understand that people are curious and have questions, but I will have no comment on this subject. I’m represented on this matter, and I’m only focused on being a productive teammate and helping the Dodgers win games.

However, Puig did briefly discuss his situation with reporters following the Dodgers’ 2-1 win over the Giants on Thursday at AT&T Park (via Saxon):

"I feel normal," Puig said. "I'm focusing on baseball and I'm giving my best for my team so things go well on the field with the preparation I've had, so those things that are happening don't torment me."

Mattingly said, per Saxon, Puig will receive all the support he needs from the Dodgers and believes Puig’s teammates will help keep him focused on the task at hand this season.

"We’re at the field today and we’ve got to think about baseball," Hanley Ramirez said when asked about the Puig saga. "I talk to him, and he tells me he’s going to do everything he can to help our team win today."

Puig has been dealing with the matter since 2012, which means that it obviously would have been on his mind last year during his historically good rookie campaign, when he batted .319/.391/.534 with 19 home runs, 42 RBI and 11 stolen bases in 104 games and finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.

And if the unthinkable weight of Puig’s ordeal didn’t detract from his performance last year, then chances are it will have a similar non-impact on his game this season.

That being said, there’s no question that Puig’s situation will be an ongoing distraction; after all, every misstep he’s made since taking Major League Baseball by storm last June has garnered national attention and thrust the Dodgers into the media spotlight. However, it’s still too early in the process to declare it will negatively affect either his or the Dodgers' successes this season—especially given the revelations are but a few days old.

The Dodgers own a 10-6 record and sit atop the National League West division in a tie with the San Francisco Giants headed into Thursday’s game against the Diamondbacks.

Yet, regardless of how the team’s season unfolds, it’s already clear that Puig’s narrative will be tied to the Dodgers' performance for the foreseeable future.