As far as careers go, Alex Rodriguez and Cesar Puello are on totally opposite ends of the baseball spectrum. But at Steinbrenner Field, their lockers stand roughly 30 feet apart in the Yankees’ clubhouse, with Puello tucked away in the middle row, around the corner from A-Rod, who has prime real estate near the door.
Aside from the uniform, however, the two share a more nefarious link: Rodriguez was the highest-profile star of the 13 players banished because of their connection to Biogenesis and Puello, despite his promising status in the Mets’ organization, was the least known of the PED-tainted bunch.
Puello, an outfielder, also remains the only member of that infamous club to never play a game in the majors, a distinction he’d like to drop at some point in putting the sins of the past behind him.
When asked Saturday about that 50-game suspension, a topic he’s never really discussed, Puello was reluctant to go there, other than to say he’s “more mature now” and trying to move on.
That’s understandable. Even Rodriguez, who’s always under intense media scrutiny, has done little more than admit the mistake, leaving the details to whatever trickled out during the 2013 investigation. But A-Rod has done a masterful job of rehabbing his image after his record 162-game ban. Puello, laboring under the radar, has to revive a career that never really has gotten started.
“I have the belief that I can play this game,” said Puello, now 24. “I just had to wait for the time to come and prepare myself for the chance.”
The Mets signed Puello out of the Dominican Republic at age 16, projecting him as the type of righthanded power bat that’s rare these days. For a while, he seemed to be on schedule, ranking as high as No. 3 on the team’s prospect list after the 2010 season, according to Baseball America, and No. 77 overall in the sport. Puello batted .292 that year with 45 stolen bases in 109 games at low Class A Savannah.
“At the time we signed him, we believed he was a guy with a very high ceiling,” former Mets general manager Omar Minaya said Saturday. “But we thought it was going to take some time for him to get there.”
Puello hit 10 home runs with 50 RBIs and 19 stolen bases in 117 games for high Class A St. Lucie in 2011, then struggled in 2012, when he was sidelined with a fractured hamate bone in his wrist. That was the latest in a series of injuries for Puello that also included a back ailment and hamstring issues.
The following year, however, was a breakthrough season for Puello at age 21. He belted 16 home runs with 73 RBIs in only 91 games for Double-A Binghamton and had a remarkable slash line of .326/.403/.547. Puello appeared to be on the verge, but he instead rolled backward the next season with Triple-A Las Vegas and then was suspended with the Biogenesis crew in August.
After that, Puello was never the same. Despite playing at hitter-friendly Las Vegas, Puello had seven homers and a .748 OPS in 2014, then suffered a fractured lower back in spring training last year. Once he was healthy again, the Mets released him on Aug. 19.
By then, Puello had crammed plenty into his eight years of professional baseball, which took him from prized prospect to drug cheat to bust before his 25th birthday.
“It was OK,” Puello said of his release. “That’s how baseball is. You start with one team but you never know where you end up. You can’t control it. You just do your job and after that, it’s in their hands.”
The Yankees signed Puello in December after seeing him play in the Dominican Republic this winter, and their plan is to have him add another outfield option at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where Aaron Judge and Mason Williams already have two spots locked down. Puello is primary a corner outfielder but has the athleticism to play centerfield, and Brian Cashman is intrigued by the same righthanded pop the Mets imagined before the dream died in the lower rungs of their organization.
“He gives us some depth in an area of weakness,” Cashman said Saturday. “The scouts saw that he still has tools and we’ll see how it plays out moving forward.”
From where Puello’s been, he’s more than happy to head in that direction.