The A’s used the sixth pick in the draft Thursday to draft a player many thought might go first in the draft, left-handed starting pitcher A.J. Puk out of Florida.
“I think I danced a little jig,’’ A’s scouting director Eric Kubota said when asked how he reacted to Puk falling from a potential No. 1 to land in the A’s lap. “At no time this spring did we think we’d have a chance to talk about him at six.’’
Oakland then went local, picking Cal right-hander Daulton Jefferies before going back to Florida to take Logan Shore, who was 11-0 for Puk’s Gators. Jefferies dropped, too, by missing eight weeks with calf and shoulder problems.
“If he’d pitched healthy all year, Daulton might have gotten to us at No. 6,’ Kubota said. “At one time or another we had all three of these guys as potential first-round picks.’’
The 6-foot-7 Puk said he’d heard he might go first or second, but was delighted to land with the A’s, who took his teammate, shortstop Richie Martin, with their first pick last year.
“He texted me right away,’’ Puk said in a conference call Thursday night. “I can’t wait to get there and play with him again.’’
Even so, the A’s aren’t his first priority. The Gators have a series this weekend against Florida State with the winner moving a step closer to the College World Series.
“We have a chance to win a national championship,’’ the 21-year-old Iowan said. “That’s what we are focusing on. The season’s been going pretty well.’’
After the season, then he’ll learn what he needs to know about Oakland.
What he knows now isn’t much.
“I’ve seen the movie `Moneyball,’ that’s about it,’’ he said when asked about his knowledge of Oakland.
The A’s know plenty about him. They have long liked the electricity in his left arm and harbored some dim hopes of taking him. But with the Phillies, drafting first, linked with Puk all along, the A’s thought they’d be going elsewhere for their first pick.
Perhaps the biggest mark against Puk was his 2015 arrest along with Gators teammate Kirby Snead for criminal trespass. The two were charged with a third-degree felony for climbing a fenced-off crane without permission.
“We saw the crane one night, and it was an immature idea to try and climb it to see the view,’’ Puk said. “Someone called the cops and I got arrested.’’
It didn’t seem to slow his Florida career, despite a brief suspension.
Scouts say that Puk will have his fastball generally sitting at between 93-96 mph, and when he pumps it up, he can hit 97 or 98. His slider has the potential to be a killer pitch for him, breaking away as it does to lefties and hammering inside against right-handers.
Puk hasn’t quite mastered making his changeup look like his fastball, but even so, it’s a pitch he said “is still developing. It will be big for me.’’
A Cedar Rapids, Iowa native, Puk said he grew up wanting to follow in the footsteps of C.C. Sabathia, another big lefty with a Cy Young Award to his name. Sabathia would be proud of the numbers Puk put us this year, including a .195 opponents’ batting average and 95 strikeouts in 70 innings.
“He’s just a big physical lefty,’’ Puk said. “He’s a big left-hander. I’ve always just watched him pitch and thought I could be him someday.’’
Puk is first pitcher taken by the A’s in the first round since they tabbed Sonny Gray with their first choice back in 2011. Scouts mostly say they’d like to see Puk continue to work on a changeup that would make him a three-pitch pitcher and a candidate to be a top-of-the-rotation guy.
The 240-pound Puk comes from a football-centric family. His father, Dr. David Puk, was an academic All-American football player at Minnesota from 1982-85. Uncle Stephen Puk lettered for the Gophers in 1984. Another uncle, J.J. Puk, was an all-Big 10 linebacker at Iowa from 1986-87. And a third uncle, Kevin Puk, played at Stanford from 1989-91.
For all of that, A.J. was sold on baseball from the time he was 9. He was a starting quarterback as a sophomore at Cedar Rapids’ Washington High, but skipped out on football after that, preferring to hit and pitch for the Virginia-based Canes Baseball travelling team.
Always a tall kid, he developed a style where he throws from the third base side of the mound, getting impressive extension when he releases the ball. How impressive?
This is what his Florida teammate, center fielder Buddy Reed summed it up earlier this season then talking to CSNPhilly.com:
“On the mound he’s probably 8-foot, he has a 97-100 mph fastball that moves; he’s got a sweeping slider and a really good changeup. As a hitter, you might want to bunt. If you can’t do that, good luck.’’
Jefferies, a member of the U.S. collegiate national team, was 6-0 in his first six starts this season for Cal, but was scratched from a start on April 1 and wound up missing eight weeks with various injuries, including calf and shoulder woes.
“He can really pitch, he’s very athletics,’’ Kubota said of Jefferies. “We felt there was no chance he would get to us at 37. He has a 90-95 mph fastball to go with a plus slider and a plus changeup.’’
While most players will immediately go to rookie league teams, Jefferies, assuming he signs, probably would head to Arizona for some injury rehab work on his shoulder. Kubota said nothing has been decided, but the organization seems confident Jefferies’ is mostly healthy and just needs a little therapy to get back in to prime shape.
For the season he was 7-0 with a 1.08 and an opponents’ batting average of .185. He struck out 53 and walked only 8 in 50 innings as a junior after being an All-Pac-12 first team pick as a sophomore.
He made two late-May starts and threw well enough to convince scouts he was worthy of being a first-day draftee.
While Puk generally pitched in the second game of weekend series on Saturdays, Shore pitched the Friday night series openers for the Gators. He was a Baseball America first team All-America and was the Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year and goes into the post-season with an 11-0 record and 2.44 ERA. He owns a school record winning streak of 16 consecutive games.
“Shore is very competitive, very advanced,’’ Kubota said. “To be honest, it’s not a sexy look, pitching at 88-92 (mph). We’ve seen him throw up to 94. We’ve seen him get outs for three years. He’s really advanced as a pitcher.’’