Puig, at crossroads, key to Dodgers' success

Puig, at crossroads, key to Dodgers' success

PHOENIX -- The dictionary defines "X-factor" as a circumstance, quality, or person that has a strong but unpredictable influence.

In other words, Yasiel Puig.

The Dodgers, and for that matter MLB, have never seen anything quite like him. His tools, as scouts say, are off the charts. He has the body of Bo Jackson with a similar rare combination of speed and power, a throwing arm as dangerous to reckless baserunners as that of Roberto Clemente, and the talent to impact a game in so many ways that he draws comparisons to the incomparable Willie Mays.

But then there is the clubhouse drama, missed cutoff men and lengthy injuries. Maybe the comparisons raised the bar of expectations to unrealistic heights. Maybe with a flashy Cuban baseball background, he's had trouble with the fundamental MLB foundation to accept game-concept discipline. Or maybe he's just wired differently.

Whatever the reason, Puig comes into 2016 at an unlikely crossroads for someone only 25, after missing half of '15 with injuries and batting only .255 with 11 homers and 38 RBIs when he was on the field. So far in Spring Training, Puig has been -- until a recent hamstring issue revived bad memories -- the model of decorum on and off the field.

"Yasiel came in with a higher level of responsibility and accountability and we think that's a terrific thing," said general manager Farhan Zaidi. "We're a different team with him firing on all cylinders; there are not many players like him. We're excited about how things are going from a mental and physical standpoint."

Puig accepted management's offseason urging that he trim down his body, which club president Andrew Friedman likened to that of an NFL linebacker. But Puig did more than diet. He re-engaged with his "teacher," Tim Bravo, the organization's former director of cultural assimilation, who was a critical member of Puig's inner circle during his spectacular big league arrival in 2013.

"He called me over the winter and said, 'Teacher, are you interested in coming back and helping me during Spring Training?'" said Bravo, recently retired as a teacher and coach in Las Cruces, N.M. "He just said, 'Do what you did.' The only thing I can tell you, he has done a good job of wanting to get better, making things right with people, being a good teammate. You can't force anybody to do this. This is him trying to change, be a good teammate. I've seen it with his diet because I cook for him. He's followed it religiously. He's done everything he could to make himself better."

Puig shows off his arm

After burning bridges with previous manager Don Mattingly and his coaching staff, Puig started anew this spring with manager Dave Roberts and his coaches.

"It's our job to get the best out of him as a player and as a person," Roberts said. "We're a different team when he's a force in the lineup. He has a clean slate with me and he's shown me nothing to think anything else. But it's always the follow through. I'm seeing the follow through. People judge the follow through."

The past few years there has been an undercurrent that management -- former and current -- has tired of Puig and is ready to trade him for a boatload of prospects or a legitimate starting pitcher. But when other clubs followed up on that over the winter, they were redirected toward Carl Crawford or Andre Ethier, and no deals were made. Nobody wants to be known as the GM that traded Puig before he became the next Mays.

Puig's outstanding game

Coincidentally, now that Ethier is sidelined for several months, Crawford will get more playing time while the Dodgers need Puig's offense more than ever. Bravo believes Puig is ready for the challenge, on the field and in the clubhouse.

"He wants to win, he wants to be a good teammate," Bravo said. "He's competitive. He's had ups and downs, but he has a good soul. My job is just to manage all of the distracting things so he can play baseball. You would never believe how many distractions there are and I try to cut them off at the pass and be a voice of reason. I'm a teacher and a coach, I worked with special-needs kids. I know when to push and when to pull. Four years ago I was one of the first Dodger employees to shake his hand and from there we've had a bond."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.