Amazin' Avenue Prospect Spotlight: Cesar Puello

USA TODAY Sports

Cesar Puello is a relic of a bygone era, the rushed Omar Minaya international signee. He's looked good in 2013, but can Puello follow on Wilmer Flores' heels as a post-hype sleeper, or will his agressive approach undermine him before he gets to the majors? Amazin' Avenue investigates.

A Brief Introduction to Cesar Puello

"Puello is arguably the best athlete in the system. He's a plus-plus runner, and scouts project some power for him down the road based on his size and strength. His arm is another plus tool, and he made some adjustments to his swing as the season went on, leading to more consistent contact."

- Kevin Goldstein, Future Shock: New York Mets Top 11 Prospects, December 22, 2010

"Look, tools are awesome. I like tools. I even talked myself into Gary Brown. But [Puello] has never hit, at any level of his entire career, as a minor league baseball player."

- Jeffrey Paternostro, two podcasts ago, July 28, 2011

"Puello gets himself out far too often with a horrible approach at the plate, as he drew just 17 unintentional walks in 488 plate appearances last year. He's fast, but not a burner, and needs to pick up his offensive game to fit in a corner."

- K.G., Future Shock: New York Mets Top 11 Prospects, January 10, 2012

"He’s a physical specimen with big strong shoulders and a power/speed game. In 2011, he bopped ten homers after hitting just one in 2010. Ten home runs might not sound special, but it’s a whole lot better than you think because of Puello’s level and the Florida State League. He was 21st overall in the FSL in homers and one of just two players to play the season as a 20-year-old and hit double digit homers (the TigersAvisail Garcia was the other).

In fact, those ten home runs actually raise the floor on Puello very considerably. From 2000 to 2008, 18 players hit at least ten home runs at the age of 20 or younger in the Florida State League. All but two are big leaguers. That’s 89% of the guys. Some are stars. Some are not."

- Toby Hyde, February 22, 2012

"Sigh. I’ve bounced around a ton on Puello over the last 18 months. Sometimes I think he should be outside of the Top 20 entirely (and it seems Baseball America, which puts even more of a premium on tools/ceiling than me, agrees this year). Other times, I think you can make a case he should be in the Top 10 over guys like Familia and Cecchini."

- J.P., December 29, 2012

"Evaluators still admire Puello’s raw tools, though he hasn’t yet made the adjustments to get the most out of his plus-raw power. A consistent approach would go a long way. Early in games he tries to do too much, offering at pitcher’s pitches and pulling off the ball before toning down his swing in later innings."

- 2013 Baseball America Annual

"So-so 2012 campaign for the 21-year-old as he battled injuries for much of it—something that is becoming a serious concern. When he was on the field, he played moderately well, posting a career-high .163 Isolated Power and stealing bases much more effectively. However, the plate discipline is still awful; his walk rate dropped to a career-low 2.8% while the strikeouts jumped to an alarming 23%. Despite excellent all-around tools, Puello does not have the kind of hit tool to absorb such a glaring deficiency—which means he'll have to make enormous strides if we're ever to believe he can have prolonged success in Double-A, let alone the majors. He's still young, but not so young that we can continue overlooking the major issues with plate discipline—not to mention injuries—that threaten to stall his development."

- Rob Castellano, Amazin' Avenue 2013 Top 50 Mets Prospects

"We discussed this on the forthcoming Mostly Mets Podcast, but [Puello's] one of only two outfielders currently playing full-season ball for the Mets that I could reasonably believe could become an everyday regular."

-T.H., May 14, 2013

Background and Minor League Performance

Year League Age PA AVG OBP SLG BB% K% SB/CS
2008 GCL 17 163 .305 .350 .364 3.1% 19.6% 13/7
2009 APPY 18 221 .296 .373 .423 4.5% 23.1% 15/5
2010 SAL 19 469 .292 .375 .359 6.8% 17.5% 45/10
2011 FSL 20 468 .259 .313 .397 3.7% 21.1% 19/9
2012 FSL 21 252 .260 .328 .423 2.8% 23.0% 19/2
2013 EL 22 342 .332 .401 .569 6.4% 21.9% 24/6

Cesar Puello was signed by the Mets on July 2, 2007, as part of the Mets' vaunted International Free Agent class. Puello received a $400,000 bonus, which cracked the Top 20 for the signing period, but was only the third highest bonus that the Mets handed out that summer, trailing Jefry Marte ($700k) and Wilmer Flores ($550k). The Mets also inked Jenrry Mejia, Jeurys Familia, and Wilfredo Tovar that year. Like most Minaya-era International Free Agents, Puello was given an aggressive assignment track, debuting stateside as a 17-year-old. Also like most Minaya-era IFAs, he more than held his own in rookie ball, both in the complex and at Kingsport.

Puello's first taste of full-season ball also went well. Despite historic Grayson Stadium depressing his power numbers, he hit .290, posted an improved walk rate, and was fifth in the league in steals. He did it all as one of the five youngest players in the South Atlantic League. Puello had certainly been on the prospect radar before, but his 2010 breakout season shot him up or onto Top 100 lists.

Puello would spend the next two seasons in the Florida State League, where he struggled to control the strike zone on the field when nagging injuries weren't keeping him off of it. While he would still tease you with an intriguing power/speed combination, it would only show up in spurts, a hot two or three weeks here and there. By the end of the 2012 season, many prospect watchers had given up on hope on Puello turning his ample tools into real baseball skills, and that was before he was named as a client of Biogenesis.

Although one could argue his 2012 performance warranted it, Puello would not repeat the FSL for a third time. He got off to a slow start for Binghamton before catching fire in May and June. He began to narrow his K/BB rate, his raw power turned into in-game power, and he continued to be a prodigious base stealer. In one stretch in early June, Puello homered six times in six games. He had shown flashes of this potential before, but we've now seen nearly three months of sustained success against upper minors competition while still somehow being one of the younger players in the league.

Mets fans may be struck by a sense of deja vu reading the above. Puello is in much the same spot that Wilmer Flores was at this time last year. A post-hype breakout season from a rushed international prospect that has prospect pundits asking if he's for real. Flores has continued to hit in 2013 and established himself as a potential cog in the Mets' 2014 lineup. Will Cesar Puello do the same?

The Tools

Hit/Power

As usual, I now turn things over to Alex Nelson for some thoughts on Puello's swing:

"Puello's long been the guy I've felt should be a lot better than he is, and nothing's really changed for me here. He has good bat speed, he loads his hands nicely, his lower half is pretty quiet, and he just looks like a ballplayer. The swing isn't really that bad. I love where he starts his hands, and it should give his swing path a slight uppercut with moderate power, but he really foils that by collapsing his backside, which drops his hands and forces him to swing straight ahead. Furthermore, although he gets some nice hip rotation, I do wish he'd have a more efficient weight transfer. If he could just improve his pitch recognition and discipline, he could be a solid leadoff man without changing a thing, and a good hitter period with some swing alterations. And Puello's still young and at an advanced level for his age, but the simple fact of the matter is he's not much better than he was when he first popped up on radar screens."

I concur with much of what Alex wrote. I actually think Puello has the best bat speed in the Mets organization. He holds his hands high and is fairly direct to the ball. It's a violent swing, but Puello is rarely out of control. When he can extend his arms, he shows good power to the opposite field and has more than enough bat speed to turn on inside fastballs. As Alex suggested, his swing does have some natural uppercut to it, and between the swing plan and Puello's physical strength, it's easy to see him as a 20-plus home run hitter at his peak.

The hit tool is more problematic. There's nothing there that is particularly damning in the wing itself, though as Alex noted, he does have a tendency to sell out for power. No, the bugaboo for Puello is his approach at the plate. I've sat on Puello three different series over the course of the season, and to be fair, he has made some strides in this department. In my last look, he was regularly working deep counts, whereas earlier in the season he was trying to drive every first-pitch fastball out of the park.

My concern is that he is still too susceptible to same-side breaking balls, especially ones that start in the zone and end up in the dirt. Puello is okay at laying off breakers that are more obviously out of the zone, especially if he is behind in the count and expects it, but if you throw him a slider in a hitter's count, he will try to murder it. Experienced, if fringy, pitchers like Nick Blackburn and Virgil Vasquez threw him breaking balls in 2-1 and 2-0 counts and were able to tap into Puello's aggressive mindset to get back into the at-bat. Until he can temper his approach—and I think it's an approach issue, not a pitch recognition issue per se—it's tough to see him hitting even .260 against major league stuff.

Run/Arm/Glove

Let's get arm out of the way first. Puello has been awarded Best Outfield Arm in the Mets system four years running by Baseball America, and it is a howitzer. He didn't get to show it off much last week, but when I sat on the New Britain-Binghamton series in May, the Rock Cats basically stopped running on his arm halfway through. It's an easy plus, maybe plus-plus outfield arm, though Puello will on occasion speed up his throwing mechanics and he can lose some accuracy.

Puello is an average runner with a good second gear. As a smart base stealer who picks his spots and gets good jumps, I could see him reeling off a few 20-steal seasons early in his major league career before his speed starts to wane. However, the speed doesn't play as well as you might hope in the outfield. Puello's lack of foot speed would probably limit him to a corner anyway, but his reads/reactions aren't great right now, and I don't see him as much more than an average defensive right fielder, even with the strong arm.

The Projection

As I said on this week's podcast, I struggle with what I think Cesar Puello looks like as a major leaguer. I have had multiple people tell me he's a fourth outfielder, and I certainly get it. I actually see a lot of Scott Hairston in the profile. Both are strong and athletic, right-handed high-ball hitters. Likewise, both struggle against offspeed stuff down in the zone. Puello has shown a healthy platoon split during his minor league career—including a frankly ludicrous 1.407 OPS against LHP this year—and probably shouldn't play center field unless every other outfielder on your roster has a gaping leg wound. So I don't begrudge anyone that sees him as a fringier varietal of major leaguer.

For me it comes down to whether or not I believe Puello can continue to refine his approach. I've seen him start to make secondary adjustments as the Eastern League has stopped throwing him fastballs. Pitch recognition isn't easy to improve, but as I said above, I don't think Puello's struggles are related to pitch recognition. I simply don't think he saw high quality breaking balls in the lower minors. The fact that he has at least started to temper his aggressiveness against offspeed stuff makes me think there is more capacity for improvement here. He's unlikely to ever approach a league-average walk rate, but with his ability/willingness to get hit by baseballs, Puello should be able to cobble together enough on-base skills to help prop up a potentially average hit tool (.260).

Look, there's a lot of risk here, even before we get into the likely suspension due to his connections to Biogenesis. I suppose it is appropriate that even during his breakout season, Puello continues to be as maddening a prospect as he was when we were just wishcasting on his tools. Smarter people than me will disagree with this projection, and they may be right. I don't see an all-star here, but .250/.300/.460 with some damage on the bases? Yeah, that guy can play right field for me.

Projection: Average MLB right fielder

Risk Factor: Very High

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