Phillies

Phillies

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Phillies fans will be hearing the name A.J. Puk a lot over the next 3½ months.

Reds fans, Braves fans, Rockies fans and Brewers fans, too.

Puk is the highest-rated college prospect in the country, according to Baseball America and many other outlets, a 6-foot-7 left-handed pitcher from the University of Florida who could end up hearing his name called No. 1 overall in the Major League draft in June.

Of course, the Phillies own that pick, a nice bit of currency for a rebuilding team that’s trying to build its next winner with “waves of pitching,” to use general manager Matt Klentak’s words.

Puk is one of the team’s considerations. That much became clear when his name started floating around the hallways of Citizens Bank Park late last season. Phillies front office man Pat Gillick, the Hall of Fame executive who loves scouting, made a special trip to Gainesville to watch Puk throw in the fall. He was there again Saturday, on a post-card 75-degree day, to watch Puk make his hotly anticipated season debut.

Three other Phillies scouts, including scouting director Johnny Almaraz, were also among the crowd of 4,682 at McKethan Stadium. You can bet the ranch that Phillies scouts and selected front-office folks will be on hand for every start Puk makes before the draft. Ditto for the other top prospects eligible for this draft, including South Jersey high school lefty Jay Groome, profiled here.

According to Florida athletic officials, more than 70 big-league scouts were on hand for Puk’s start Saturday night against Florida Gulf Coast University. Just as many were in attendance when the Gators opened up Friday night. Logan Shore, another projected first-round pick, was on the mound for that game. Add outfielder Buddy Reed’s name to the mix and the Gators have three projected first-rounders in the June draft — a big reason they are ranked No. 1 in the country.

Puk, who turns 21 in April, probably envisioned a smoother outing for his season debut. He gave up four runs in the fourth inning, but all were unearned. He made a throwing error in the frame and needed 32 pitches to complete the inning. He left trailing by a run, but his mates rallied for an 8-4 win behind 15 hits. The Gators’ No. 8 and 9 hitters, freshmen Deacon Liput and Jonathan India, combined for six RBIs, and another freshman, hard-throwing Brady Singer, got the win. Clearly, these Gators are well-stocked for the future and the present.

Other than the third inning, Puk was very efficient. He struck out the first hitter he faced on three pitches, punctuated by a 96-mph dart. In the second inning, he struck out a FGCU hitter on three pitches — slider, 94-mph fastball and a nice changeup.

“This fall, my big focus was my changeup,” Puk said afterward. “It’s probably my second pitch now.”

All in all, Puk was pleased with the outing in which he walked one and struck out six over four innings.

“I felt all my stuff was good,” he said. “My off-speed stuff came on at the end of the game. I threw all my pitches for strikes. I felt comfortable out there.

“I was just anxious to get out there. It’s been a long offseason. All the work we put in in the offseason, I’m happy to get the first game out of the way.

“It’s very exciting [to be the top-ranked team.] We’ve got a great season to look forward to, hopefully a national championship.”

With his long arms and legs, Puk has been compared to Chicago White Sox lefty Chris Sale. At 230 pounds, his body type is similar to a young David West, back when West, also a lefty, was a hot-shot prospect with the Mets, years before he joined the Phillies as a big-bodied reliever.

Puk, an Iowa native, was drafted in the 35th round by the Detroit Tigers out of high school but chose to attend Florida. He turned heads last year when he posted a 1.82 ERA and struck out 59 in 39 2/3 innings over his final eight starts to help the Gators surge their way to the College World Series, where they tied for third. He did serve a short team suspension last year after he and a teammate were charged with misdemeanor trespassing after pulling some hijinks (they tried to climb on a crane) at a construction site near campus. Puk has moved on and learned from the incident. Those who know him say he’s a good kid who made a youthful mistake.

Puk has already had a couple of meetings with Phillies officials and he’s well regarded. Gillick is said to be high on him, but, then again, the Phillies will have the pick of this litter, ahead of Cincinnati, Atlanta, Colorado and Milwaukee.

Predictably, Puk deflected most questions about the draft.

“I really don’t think about it too much,” he said. “I just go out there and try to give my team the best chance to win and improve every day. Just stay focused on the team and what we have to do for the team.”

Puk did concede that being the first overall pick in the draft “would be great. Everyone dreams of being the No. 1 overall pick.”

There are signs that the Phillies would like to take a fast-rising pitcher with the No. 1 pick — if they can get the right guy — so that pitcher can join Aaron Nola and some of the other young pitchers in the rotation in the not-too-distant future.

Nola, already in the majors, was the Phillies’ first-round pick in 2014. Like Puk, he was a star in the Southeastern Conference — at LSU.

“He pitched against us,” Puk said. “We actually beat him on a walk-off home run. He was always fun to watch.”

Maybe one day the two will be teammates.

“Yeah, maybe one day,” Puk said with a smile.