A’s rotation hopeful A.J. Puk focused on becoming pitcher not ‘thrower’ in 2021

Is it time for A.J. Puk 2.0?

Puk made a name for himself as a fireballing southpaw prospect with long, blonde locks that flowed beneath his cap to his shoulders. He entered this year’s spring training with a buzzcut after undergoing September shoulder surgery in the latest health setback to his promising career.

The A’s are preaching patience as Puk builds back his arm strength and his fastball sits at about 93-94 mph, a few ticks below the 98 mph heater he flashed during his 10-game stint with the A’s in 2019. 

“This is just my third game action in over a year-and-a-half,” Puk told reporters following his start on Saturday. “Even if my velocity doesn’t come back to having 98 [mph] in my back pocket, I’m still confident with the stuff I have. That’s why I’ve been working a lot of two seams. Like I said, I’ve thrown more two-seams now than I have in my entire career. 

“I’ve always told myself I want to become a pitcher. Previous years’ injuries, it’s pretty easy to become a thrower with 98 in the back pocket, you know, I could just do that anytime I want. But now I’m just working on becoming a pitcher.”

On Saturday, Puk threw four scoreless innings, allowing one hit and no walks while striking out three.

It was his longest outing in any game setting since Aug. 31, 2017. Entering the contest, A’s manager Bob Melvin said he was more concerned about Puk’s control than his velocity and that four innings was a solid benchmark for length. 

Puk passed the litmus test.

“Excellent,” Melvin said. “Throwing strikes, repeating his delivery. I’m really not concerned about the velocity because 93, 94 seems to play a little bit better, a little bit closer to you. He’s got good pop in his wrist and the ball’s on you.

“Good breaking ball, good changeup. That’s the kind of guy we’re looking for. He’s definitely capable of performing like that.”

Puk, Daulton Jefferies and Cole Irvin all responded well to the in-house competition for Mike Fiers’ rotation spot to start the season. But there’s only one spot for the three of them.

The A’s have been patiently awaiting Puk’s big league arrival and this seems like an ideal scenario to see how he can handle a starting gig. Puk is healthy, there’s a spot up for grabs and Fiers’ looming return could provide a perfect escape hatch if the lefty falters.

My prediction: Puk will begin the season as No. 5 starter, Burch Smith will get the final bullpen spot, and Jefferies and Irvin will go to the alt site to stay stretched out as starters. Originally I thought the A’s might keep one of the excess starters as a long man, but Melvin said Saturday it’s unlikely.

“At this point I would say it’s a longshot,” Melvin said of sending Puk, Jefferies or Irvin to the bullpen. “You never know how things are going to transpire through camp, but I think those guys are digging for that last starter’s spot.”

A’s pitching coach Scott Emerson also pointed out that teams have more flexibility with a 26-man roster and 13-man pitching staff, to where a traditional 3-plus-inning long man isn’t necessary.

If Jefferies and Irvin end up in Stockton at the alternate site together, they might be splitting an apartment.

The competition may have been stiff this spring, but A’s general manager David Forst said he saw the trio of Puk, Jefferies and Irvin playing cards together on Saturday in the clubhouse.

“I think they’ve really enjoyed going back and forth with each other,” Forst said. “Obviously, each one wants to make the team and there’ll be some hurt feelings in the next few days. There’s no reason to think we’re not going to see all three of them in Oakland soon enough. Too many good players is not a problem we’ll complain about.”

They say reaching the bigs is hard but staying there is harder. Whoever gets the nod for the No. 5 role might not have much time with Oakland, as Melvin said it’s reasonable to expect Fiers to rejoin the rotation in April.