The time is now for Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk.
The two southpaws have been rising up the ranks within the A's organization and enter 2021 with heavy expectations and fleeting prospect status. It’s time for them to become bona fide big leaguers.
Last season presented different challenges for Luzardo and Puk. While Luzardo struggled with consistency, Puk underwent shoulder surgery in September, adding to the narrative that he’s a super-talented pitcher who simply can’t stay healthy.
Luzardo spoke to the media on Sunday via video conference to detail how the two pitchers spent the past offseason working out and living together in Jupiter, Fla.
“We have the same goals, we do the same things off the field,” Luzardo said. “We became really tight and I was lucky enough to see him work out and rehab his shoulder this offseason and see all the work he put in. He’s a grinder and he has that dog in him, I think this year, to be a breakout candidate and open a lot of people’s eyes. He worked really hard and I’m excited for him.”
Luzardo said the two have been close friends since rehabbing together as minor leaguers in 2019. Now it appears they are competing for the last spot on Oakland’s starting staff.
Unless manager Bob Melvin moves to a six-man rotation, simple math says someone is going to get left out if the A’s starters stay healthy this spring. At the moment, Puk could be the odd man out despite his immense potential.
Chris Bassitt, Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea and Mike Fiers should feel secure in their rotation spots while Luzardo and Puk duke it out for the fifth role. Montas was recently placed on the 10-day disabled list due to COVID-19 but he should have enough of a runway to be ready for opening day.
Heading into this season, Luzardo appears to have the inside track over Puk for a rotation spot based on his work in 2020 and Melvin's expectation for him to become a "top of rotation guy."
The 23-year-old’s talent is undeniable, but the ability to string together quality starts has still eluded Luzardo. After getting a late start to the 2020 season due to COVID-19 protocols, the lefty pitched in 12 games (nine starts), posting a 4.12 ERA with 1.27 WHIP and 59 strikeouts in 59 innings. He struggled in two abbreviated postseason starts, allowing seven runs in 7 2/3 innings combined.
Luzardo said he’s focused on his mechanics and recapturing the devastating curveball that he featured two seasons ago with the A’s.
“I’m just trying to get it back to what it was in 2019,” Luzardo said. “I feel like that breaking ball I had was the best I’ve ever thrown. It felt really good throughout Double-A, through Triple-A and then when I got called up in 2019. Last year it kind of got away from me. Couldn’t really find a feel for it throughout the year, now it’s back to where it was.”
Puk will turn 26 later this season so father time is starting to come in to play here as he tries to jumpstart his MLB career. He posted a 3.18 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 13 strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings with Oakland in 2019 but last season was lost to injury, as was 2018 to Tommy John surgery. As such, he remains a candidate to be an explosive arm with a 98 mph fastball coming out of the bullpen should he not make the rotation.
The biggest question remains for both players -- can they sustain the workload it takes to make 30 starts a year? Luzardo has never pitched more than 109 1/3 innings in a season, coming in 2018, while Puk has never topped his 2017 total of 125 innings.
Time is ticking.