As the first few selections were made Thursday in the Major League Baseball draft, A.J. Puk was as curious as anybody to see where he might be taken.
When the sixth overall pick rolled around, the A’s pounced on the University of Florida lefty, grabbing a pitcher that some had pegged as the potential No. 1 overall selection.
“Before the draft, I thought I could have been potentially one of the top picks,” Puk said on a Bay Area media conference call. “You just never know with the draft and know what teams want. I’m happy I ended up with the A’s and a place they really wanted me.”
Oakland owned its highest pick in the draft since 1998, and fittingly they took a player considered to have some very lofty upside. The 6-foot-7 Puk, a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was the top-ranked player on Baseball America’s entire draft board. He clocks a fastball that hits the high 90’s to go with a slider and developing changeup, and he struck out 95 hitters in just 70 innings this season for the Gators, who play Florida State this weekend in an NCAA Super Regional.
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As a sophomore, Puk struck out 104 in 78 innings last year and then pitched for the U.S. Collegiate National Team during the summer and contributed to a combined no-hitter against Cuba.
“He gets great extension on his fastball,” said MLB Network analyst Dan O’Dowd, the former Rockies general manager. “I do think he’ll need a (better) changeup. (But) this is a legitimate big-time arm.”
So why did he fall all the way to No. 6?
There was no consensus top pick leading up to the draft, and it wound up being prep outfielder Mickey Moniak out of Carlsbad who the Philadelphia Phillies eventually took No. 1. Tennessee third baseman Nick Senzel went second to the Reds, then the Braves and Rockies grabbed a pair of prep right-handers in Ian Anderson and Riley Pint. With the fifth pick, the Brewers took Louisville outfielder Corey Ray.
Put was 2-3 with a 3.21 ERA over 15 starts this season as a junior. He was hindered by back spasms early on and got off to an inconsistent start, but when all was said and done, he averaged 12.21 strikeouts per nine innings and allowed just 50 hits in 70 innings. He did issue 3.99 walks per nine innings, a high total.
Puk also made headlines for the wrong reason as a sophomore, when he and a teammate were arrested and charged with third-degree criminal trespass after climbing a crane on the Florida campus. Puk served a team suspension, and the charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor.
“It was a stupid idea,” Puk said. “We just decided to climb it and see what the view was like. Someone called the cops on us and we got arrested.”
The athletic history in the Puk family suggested that he might have chosen the gridiron over the diamond.
His father, David, and uncle, Steven Puk both played football at the University of Minnesota. Another uncle, J.J. Puk, was an all-Big Ten linebacker at Iowa in 1987. A third uncle, Kevin Puk, played football at Stanford.
A.J. was the starting varsity quarterback as a sophomore for Washington High School in Cedar Rapids but hung up his shoulder pads after getting invited to play for a high-profile travel baseball team the summer before his junior season.
The A’s entered the draft looking to bolster their young starting pitching. In coming seasons, Puk could pair with another big lefty, 6-foot-5 Sean Manaea, at the top of Oakland’s rotation. But Puk said it’s another imposing southpaw that he grew up trying to emulate.
“I was a big CC Sabathia fan,” Puk said. “I always just watched him pitch, and just thought I could be him one day.”