GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The City of Los Angeles is home to nearly 4 million souls, with nearly 400,000 African Americans, over 430,000 Asian-Americans and nearly 2 million persons of Hispanic or Latino descent. The franchise that sits nestled between the palm trees in into the crook of Chavez Ravine has always been one of inclusion, from Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella and Joe Black, to Sandy Koufax, Fernando Valenzuela, Hideo Nomo and Chan Ho Park.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, historically, have had one of the most diverse franchises, and this spring, the United Nations that is their Camelback Ranch spring training locker room has gotten an extra jolt, with the presence of South Korean transplant Hyun-Jin Ryu and Cuban defector Yasiel Puig, who is in his first Major League camp less than a year after leaving Cuba to establish residency in Mexico, in order to become a free agent.
Free agent power lefty Ryu -- who will pitch likely one inning today against the Chicago White Sox, following a pair by starter Zack Greinke -- made a big splash when he signed with the Dodgers on Dec. 9, 2012, out of South Korea, after a career which has seen him win an Olympic gold medal, make seven Korean Baseball Organization All-Star teams, win five KBO strikeout titles, two ERA titles, two Golden Gloves, the KBO pitching triple-crown and the league MVP.
At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Ryu tops out at 95 and though the language barrier is a challenge, some things are just universal.
“The great thing about it -- and we had the same thing when we had the chance to work with [Takashi] Saito and [Hiroki] Kuroda -- these guys understand baseball,” says pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. “They understand the actions of baseball and what you’re talking about on the field. When it gets down to one-on-one, you always go through the interpreter, but that communication process will just get better and better, but he’s been fine.”
Puig -- at just 22 -- is a veteran of the exacting Cuban baseball juggernaut, having played in the 2008 World Junior Baseball Championship, hitting .276 with five home runs in his first season for the Cienfuegos in the Cuban National Series, a .330, 17-homer sophomore campaign and an appearance in the World Port Tournament in 2011.
“I think he’s been good,” said manager Don Mattingly, “but I don’t really have anything to judge it on, how he was before, but he’s been fine. He’s been picking things up, it looks like.”
In his spring debut for the Dodgers, Puig went 1-for-2 with a double against the White Sox on Saturday, and played five innings in right field without a ball hit his way.
Puig came on in the fourth inning to run for starting right fielder Andre Ethier, and grounded out back to the box in his first at-bat in the bottom of the seventh. Puig then led off the bottom of the ninth with a line-drive double to left off of reliever Deunte Heath.
“The work that I’ve seen, as far as the cuts and the little stuff you see, he’s been really good,” Mattingly says, before laughingly adding, “for me, he’s been on-time, he’s been around.”
Time is foremost on a Major League manager’s mind, and the timetable for Puig to make an impact at the big league level may be shorter than most expect. Listed at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds and looking not even a Happy Meal short of that, he certainly looks the part. The ball jumps off his bat, and he has an effortless stride.
“He’s got the body,” Mattingly says. “You see this guy and you wouldn’t think that it’s just some young kid that needs to grow into his body. He’s grown into it, alright. We’ll see. We’re going to play him. He’ll get some at-bats down here. We’ll see what it looks like.”
Having only played as high as advanced Single-A Rancho Cucamonga, it’s unlikely that Puig breaks camp with the big club, but it’s not entirely out of the question for him to start the season in Double-A, given that, in 14 games with the Quakes, he hit .327 with two doubles, a home run and seven stolen bases.
Ryu, on the other hand, will surely be a part of the Dodgers rotation in 2013. While not perhaps as flashy as completing a bookend set of Cy Young Award-winners by pairing Greinke with Clayton Kershaw, the signing of Ryu gives Los Angeles yet another veteran arm to add to the rotation, and a stirring counterpoint to Kershaw.
“[He has] quality fastball command, very sound – in my opinion – very sound mechanically,” Honeycutt says. “He has a lot of good things. [Friday] he threw a few more breaking balls than he has been on his pens. For the most part, he’s been fastball-changeup, which most guys start out with. Then, he’s starting to incorporate a few more of his off-speed pitches.”
While Kershaw works his non-Newtonian curve off of his explosive fastball, Ryu depends on the changeup as his out-pitch, with a decent curve and a slider to go along with a regularly-90 mph fastball which can top out at 95.
“He’s been pretty good, too,” Mattingly says. “You never know what a guy’s [...] Number one, I can’t talk to him really. It’s hard, when I check on him to see if he’s OK, to see how everything’s going, it’s kind of a thumbs-up/thumbs-down kind of thing. It’s checking on how he’s doing and then talking to the interpreter and seeing if he’s having any problems and stuff around, outside of just the field. But, around the field, he seems like he’s right in-tune, so he’s able to pick up everything we’re doing, so that part of it’s been fine. I worry about him more just being away from his home country and not really being able to speak to anybody but [interpreter] Charlie [Kim].”
As far as integrating into the clubhouse culture, Ryu has been a hit with the Dodgers pitching staff, participating whole-heartedly in spirited exhibition ping-pong bouts outside of the rigid doubles tournament structure established by Kershaw.
“Ryu, I haven’t gotten to see him pitch or anything like that, but just from being around him, personality-wise, he seems like a lot of fun,” says the 24-year old veteran. “He’s laughing all the time, and obviously doesn’t know a whole lot of English, but he’s learning. He gets jokes and stuff like that. He’ll be a good teammate. He’s a lot of fun to have around.”
He’ll be even more fun if he’s as good as advertised.
Ryan Gorcey writes about the MLB for Fox Sports Next and publishes Cal Sports Digest. Follow him on Twitter @RGBearTerritory.