In preparing for this year’s major-league draft, the A’s put left-handed pitcher A.J. Puk near the top of their prospect board, not thinking he would still be available at the sixth overall pick. But when it came the A’s turn to select in Thursday’s first round, Puk’s name had not been called.
“I probably did a little jig, to be honest,” said A’s director of scouting Eric Kubota. “We were pretty happy.”
The A’s snagged Puk out of the University of Florida with their highest draft pick in 18 years, making him the first college pitcher selected in this year’s draft and the first of three taken by the A’s on Day One. Oakland also selected right-hander Daulton Jefferies of Cal with the 37th pick and right-hander Logan Shore from Florida with the 47th pick.
Puk is a 6-foot-7, 230-pound left-hander who throws a mid-to-high 90s fastball, a slider and a changeup that is a work in progress. His numbers for Florida this season do not jump off the page – 2-3 with a 3.21 ERA, 50 hits allowed, 31 walks and 95 strikeouts in 70 innings – but talent evaluators looked beyond that to Puk’s potential.
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“Physically it’s just huge upside,” Kubota said. “He’s really big, he’s left-handed, he throws really hard, he’s got really good stuff. And we think the delivery is there. … We think it’s just a matter of repetition and consistency, which will get his command on par with his stuff.”
Going into the draft, Puk was projected to go as high as the first or second overall pick. Baseball America named him the top overall prospect available. Kubota said the A’s “started hearing (Thursday) morning that he was sliding for whatever reason” but were still “very surprised” when he was available at No. 6.
Along with a fastball that reaches 97-98 mph, Kubota said Puk has an “out-pitch type slider” and a changeup that is “actually very workable.” Puk told reporters on a conference call the changeup is “still developing” and a pitch he knows will be important in making the jump from college to the minors.
The A’s made their first-round selection from Florida for the second straight year, having taken shortstop Richie Martin in 2015. Puk played alongside Martin at Florida and said Martin had already texted him congratulations.
“I was really happy to hear from him,” Puk said, “and I can’t wait to get out there and play with him.”
Puk said the A’s had not contacted him before Thursday and summarized his knowledge of the organization as: “I’ve seen the movie, ‘Moneyball.’ That’s about it.” He said he heard talk that he might be one of the first few players selected but that, “You never know what teams want.”
“I came into the draft open-minded,” he said. “You really don’t know with the draft, and obviously excited where I landed.”
Puk said he comes from a football family but quit that sport after his sophomore year in high school to focus on baseball. Last spring, Puk and a Florida teammate were arrested for climbing a crane in a construction site and charged with third-degree criminal trespass. The charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor, and Puk said Thursday that the incident was “a stupid idea, an immature act.”
The A’s took Puk with their highest draft pick since 1998, when they took another left-handed pitcher, Mark Mulder, second overall. That they used their other two selections Thursday on college pitchers, Kubota said, was a product of those players being the best available on the A’s board.
Jefferies missed two months of his junior season at Cal with calf and shoulder injuries but in eight starts was 7-0 with a 1.05 ERA. Kubota said the A’s might have considered using the sixth pick on Jefferies had he pitched the entire season at that pace. He said Jefferies still needs to rehab his shoulder, but the A’s are confident he will be 100 percent.
“There’s so much to like about him,” Kubota said. “He can really pitch, he’s very athletic and we have seen three plus pitches out of him.”
Shore, a teammate of Puk’s at Florida, actually has the better numbers of the two this season: He’s 11-0 with a 2.44 ERA and was named Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year. Where Puk has the eye-opening repertoire, Kubota said, Shore is perhaps the more polished pitcher at this stage.
“He’s very advanced as far as knowing how to use what he has,” Kubota said of Shore. “To be honest, it’s not a sexy look at times, because he pitches 88-92 (mph). But we’ve seen him throw up to 94 in the past. And we think a lot of it is style. He’s just content using the two-seamer and sinking the ball and getting outs, which he’s done for three years (in college). He’s just really advanced as a pitcher and as a competitor.”
Puk and Shore both have their college careers to finish before joining the A’s. Florida plays in the Super Regional of the NCAA tournament starting Saturday.
“We have a chance right now to get back to Omaha and win a national championship,” Puk said. “That’s what we’re focusing on.”