Puig deal signals bright Dodger future

So, a reporter asked Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, what do you hear about the team’s new $42 million man, Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig?

“He can fly,” Mattingly said. “But I don’t think they expect him to be here tomorrow or anything like that.”

Seeing as how the Dodgers had just been shut out three straight games in San Francisco, falling into a first-place tie with the Giants, the assembled media couldn’t resist a few jabs.

“Can he be here Saturday?” one reporter asked.

“Will you be sending a limo?” another said.

“You sure you don’t want to bat him cleanup?” a third joked.

Puig, 21, officially became a Dodger on Friday, but he cannot yet help a team that has averaged 2.3 runs over its previous 16 games, a team that on Thursday night fell out of first place for the first time since April 11, falling to the Mets, 3-2.

But as the Dodgers continue their series against the Mets, (MLB on Fox, Saturday, 7:15 ET), the agreement with Puig represents a watershed moment for a franchise with an increasingly bright future — not just long-term, but short-term, too.

Over the next several weeks, the Dodgers expect the returns of their 2-3-4 hitters — second baseman Mark Ellis, center fielder Matt Kemp and right fielder Andre Ethier — plus the return of their Opening Day closer, Javy Guerra.

The news on Ethier’s strained left oblique isn’t as bad as the Dodgers feared when he suffered the injury on Sunday — he is considered day-to-day. Ellis could return from a sprained left knee shortly before the All-Star break, Kemp from a strained left hamstring shortly after.

And uh, in case you’re wondering, the Dodgers’ new ownership plans to be just as aggressive prior to the July 31 non-waiver deadline as it was in the international market on Thursday — a market that, under previous owner Frank McCourt, the team had all but ignored.

“We’re the DODGERS — put that in all caps,” team president Stan Kasten said. “We’re supposed to be big. We intend to be big.”

The Dodgers, according to major-league sources, have talked multiple times to two likely sellers, the Cubs and Astros, and a third club that also could trade veterans, the Brewers. In addition, they’ve touched base with a number of other teams, including the Mariners, Royals, Twins, Blue Jays and Padres, sources said.

Movement is minimal with the deadline still more than a month away and few teams ready to concede. But the Dodgers, who want to add a hitter, a starting pitcher and a left-handed reliever, could swallow contracts the way the Yankees once did, giving trading partners financial relief rather than parting with their few cherished prospects.

Think they don’t mean business?

They are about to award Puig the largest contract ever given to a Cuban amateur, more than the Athletics guaranteed Yoenis Cespedes ($36 million over four years), more than the Cubs guaranteed outfielder Jorge Soler ($30 million over nine). And — get this — major-league scouts have not seen Puig play in game conditions since June 2011, according to Baseball America.

Dodgers scout Mike Brito watched Puig on video and assistant general manager Logan White recently worked him out and met with him personally, sources said. But Puig clearly benefited from the pending restrictions on international spending. Starting Monday, teams can spend only $2.9 million on international amateurs over the next year. Puig was the last expensive toy on the shelf before shopping at the dollar store begins.

The word on Puig from rival clubs is similar to the initial word on Cespedes — immense talent, questionable makeup. Well, Cespedes to this point has demonstrated superior makeup, drawing raves for his mental toughness from Athletics GM Billy Beane. The criticism of Puig is either loser’s talk or the first sign of trouble.

The Dodgers — excuse me, the DODGERS — don’t care.

The way they see it, they can easily absorb a $42 million investment, spread over seven years. They now have a combined $287 million committed to three outfielders — Puig, Kemp and Ethier. But if you think they will rule out a short-term, high-dollar deal for Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton on the free-agent market next off-season, think again.

The one free agent the Dodgers might not pursue as aggressively as everyone anticipates is Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels; Kasten opposed long-term deals for pitchers in his previous stints with the Braves and Nationals. Then again, most in the industry never expected an executive as fiscally responsible as Kasten to give $42 million to an unknown Cuban. So really, who knows?

Ah, but back to the run-starved present.

The Dodgers, playing without Ethier as well as Kemp and Ellis on Thursday night, fielded a lineup that resembled a weak split-squad entry in spring training: Rookies, backups and a cleanup man, first baseman James Loney, who repeatedly has been benched in June.

Mattingly spoke honestly before the game about asking too much of role players, but Ellis said that one of the manager’s strengths is that he refuses to use injuries as an excuse, effectively telling his players, “whoever we’ve got, we expect to win.”

“At the end of the day, we have to be optimistic,” Mattingly said. “We have to regroup and think about this thing.

“If you told me (in) spring training that 11 games before the break, you’re going to play more than half our games without Matt, lose a starting pitcher like Ted Lilly, lose (relievers) Matt Guerrier, Javy Guerra — and you’re going to be tied for first, you (would have said), ‘Sign me up. Play the rest of the year. Let’s go.’

“That’s where we’re at. No matter where we’ve been, that’s where we’re at.”

Where they’re going, it’s even better.