Athletics

Why A's 'No. 1' option for Puk is the starting rotation

Athletics
Puk, A's

By trading Khris Davis to the Texas Rangers in exchange for two-time MLB All-Star Elvis Andrus on Saturday, the A's finally addressed the shortstop position, their most glaring need of the offseason.

They reportedly also re-signed free agent Mike Fiers to a one-year, $3.5 million contract, solving yet another exigency in bolstering their starting rotation. 

Still, with just one week remaining until MLB's reported spring training start date, plenty of questions remain for Oakland. What to do with A.J. Puk certainly is at the top of the list. 

Shoulder soreness, and eventually season-ending surgery, led to Puk missing the entirety of the condensed 2020 season. Despite that, the 26-year-old remains highly regarded throughout the organization, and the A's remain optimistic he can return to the starting rotation for Opening Day on April 1.

 

Still, A's pitching coach Scott Emerson says only time will tell if that will truly be the case.

"Our initial goal right now on paper is A.J. is going to come in and build up as a starter," Emerson told NBC Sports California recently. "Obviously if the arm doesn't play the way we feel like it plays or how he's feeling then there's always different options. But option number one right now is to build him up as a starter. ... We haven't really discussed option number two yet."

Puk has packed plenty of allure since being selected by the A's as the No. 6 overall pick in 2016, but each time he looks poised for a big break, injuries seem to find him. In 2018, Puk was a likely candidate to break into the starting rotation after a stellar spring, but a noticeable dip in his fastball velocity led to concern, and he underwent Tommy John surgery two weeks later. 

Puk came surging back in 2019, remarkably returning to baseball just 15 months after his surgery. He made his major league debut in August out of the bullpen, where his impressive fastball-slider pairing immediately stood out in the league. Come 2020, the southpaw once again showed promise in cracking the rotation, but began experiencing shoulder soreness in the spring. After baseball shut down in March due to COVID-19 precautions, he continued to follow his throwing program up until July, when he rejoined the A's at the team's alternate site in San Jose. 

Puk showed progress in summer camp and continued to improve through August, but his shoulder issues lingered, and he was ultimately shut down in September. 

Now, in his third attempt, Puk once again will aim to finally nab a starting role. 

Emerson is encouraged by Puk's progress in the team's throwing program, and the left-hander additionally has been working out with teammate Jesús Luzardo in Florida, who he also lives with. 

Emerson loves Puk's demeanor, noting the left-hander wields a new sense of confidence heading into 2021.

"He feels great," Emerson said. "And what comes with feeling great is the confidence. I think he's going to be very confident in his arm and his ability to let the baseball go a little bit more this year."

 

Puk owns a lively fastball that often touches triple digits and combines it with a wipeout slider and an ever-improving changeup. Combine that with his hulky 6-foot-7 frame and he becomes quite the intimidator on the mound. His pitch mix is so commanding he easily could profile in any relief role should he need additional time after the spring to ramp up his arm. 

The A's obviously will proceed with caution in regards to Puk in spring training, and while Emerson restates the team is shooting for a rotation role, he believes Puk could be a versatile weapon in the bullpen. With Luzardo and Fiers, along with last year's ace Chris Bassitt, Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas, the A's already have a solid starting rotation that should offer plenty of upside.

However, as the adage goes, you can never have too much starting pitching, and Oakland certainly won't stray from Puk if he proves ready.

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Oakland's pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Arizona on Feb. 17. The A's will proceed slowly with Puk, focusing particularly on how he reacts after his scheduled outings and side sessions. 

"With A.J. it's just seeing how he's bouncing back and recovering," Emerson said. "You're really going to need good communication with him and he's going to have to let us know how he's feeling so we can progress into the next stage."

Hopefully for Puk and the A's, the next stage is baseball's main stage, where the lefty can finally build off his brief debut. Emerson certainly believes it's in Puk's realm. 

"With him feeling great and that confidence rising, I'm anxious to see what he can do," he said.

Suffice to say, fans in Oakland are feeling the same. 

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