Southpaw A.J. Puk is on his way back to Oakland after being promoted from Triple-A Las Vegas on Tuesday. Right-hander J.B. Wendelken has been designated for assignment to make room for Puk on the active roster.
Puk figures to add a fireballing presence to the A’s bullpen from the left side, as he has reportedly been topping 98 mph again while rebuilding strength from September shoulder surgery.
The A’s top prospect, 26, has been on quite the hot streak since June 26, posting a 1.64 ERA with a 24-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 games (22 innings pitched). The lanky southpaw has shown the ability to go multiple innings during this stretch, going at least two innings in seven appearances and at least three frames in two different outings. For the year, Puk has an unsightly 6.08 ERA in the hitter-friendly AAA West league, as he got off to an atrocious start with the Aviators.
While Oakland added southpaw Andrew Chafin to the bullpen from the Chicago Cubs on a trade deadline deal, the A’s still left something to be desired from its relief corps. Maybe Puk can be the shot in the arm that the squad needs.
Puk had the inside track to be the team’s No. 5 starter near the end of spring training but landed on the Injured List with a left biceps strain after making a 65-pitch relief appearance vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 5. It appears he’s back to throwing the high-octane gas that has made him an intriguing prospect since before his MLB debut in 2019.
Wendelken has struggled this year, but I’d be surprised if he clears waivers given his stellar production in 2020, when he posted a 1.80 ERA in 21 appearances and became a trusted set-up man. Now he got the axe quicker than fellow set-up man Deolis Guerra, who is also out of options. Interesting to note that right-hander Burch Smith, whose 4.99 ERA is worse than Wendelken’s, still has options remaining and could have been sent to AAA without being DFA’d.
Wendelken sports a 4.32 ERA and 1.68 WHIP through 26 appearances this year but struggled with command all season. He pitched fine in April (3.18 ERA) but was inconsistent in the subsequent three-plus months with Oakland (5.27 ERA) and strung together back-to-back scoreless appearances on just two occasions.
The A’s have been patiently awaiting Puk’s breakthrough at the MLB level and this could be the opportunity they’ve been waiting for. He has the chance to make major contributions in a playoff race for a bullpen that needs reinforcements and depth heading into the final stretch of the year.
Given Puk’s durability issues throughout his career, perhaps a permanent move to the bullpen would suit his approach as a high-velocity pitcher. Sure, the A’s would love to see Puk leading their rotation one day, but they just want to see him on an MLB mound at this point. While Chafin and Jake Diekman will probably get the call in high-leverage situations before Puk, Puk has the stuff to become a valuable back-end bullpen weapon right now.