The University of Florida baseball team has a lot of big guys. First baseman Peter Alonso (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) is sturdy and muscular. Center fielder Buddy Reed (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) is spindly and lean, a multisport star in high school who devours the distance between bases with his long strides. And among his teammates, sophomore pitcher Alex Faedo (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) immediately stands out, like, “Oh yeah, that’s their token huge kid.”
Then, lurking in the back row, is junior left-hander A.J. Puk, who has as good of a shot as anyone to be the no. 1 pick in tonight’s MLB draft. Puk looks like a guy you’d use for a sight gag in a kung fu movie. When the hero is told he has to fight Florida’s biggest guy, he looks at Faedo and says, “Yeah, I can take him.” But then Puk steps out from behind the corner, and the hero shits his pants.
The 21-year-old Iowan is listed at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, and if we’re going to call Alonso, Reed, and Faedo “big,” we’re going to need a different word for Puk. He’s obvious, and sometimes a prospect’s appeal can be, too.
“Being a big body and left-handed,” Puk said Wednesday, “that helps.”
After an elite prep career, Puk ultimately landed at Florida, which has become something of a pitching factory under head coach Kevin O’Sullivan. The Gators produced first-round starters in 2012 (Brian Johnson) and 2013 (Jonathon Crawford). Along with Puk, fellow junior Logan Shore could come off the board on the first day of the draft, and Faedo should follow suit next year. In contrast to other college programs, O’Sullivan has developed this stable of big arms because of his reputation for not overworking his pitchers.
That developmental strategy cuts both ways, though. The quality of Puk’s stuff is undeniable, and he’s avoided major injuries to his elbow and shoulder over the course of his career. But O’Sullivan’s quick hook has prevented Puk from pitching deep into games. He broke the 100-pitch mark in less than half of his starts this season, and when Puk experiences even minor discomfort, like when he tweaked his back against Texas A&M earlier this year, O’Sullivan hasn’t hesitated to take him out. At Florida, Puk never pitched more than 78 innings in a season, and he has just one complete game on his career record.
So, despite a relatively clean injury history, there are still questions about Puk’s durability. It’s also difficult to keep something as complicated as an overhand pitching delivery in sync when you’re that big, so he still needs to show he can consistently repeat his windup, too.
According to Puk, that’s just a matter of practice.
“Throughout the week, [you have to] get your work in, just get as many repetitions as you can to keep it going,” he said.
About that motion: When we colonize the stars, and have giant space stations that rotate to create artificial gravity, I imagine they’ll look something like A.J. Puk throwing a pitch.
With his compact torso perched upon perhaps the longest legs in college baseball, Puk takes signs with his neck slightly hunched and his arms folded in on his chest. Then he unfurls toward the plate. First, with one titanic step off the mound, his left arm extends so far it looks like he’ll scrape his knuckles on the first-base dugout railing. Then, with an arch of his back and a flick of his wrist, the ball’s gone.
From that flick comes a fastball that gets up to 97 mph, an elite velocity for a left-handed starter. What Puk considers his best pitch then sets up a slider that would be among the best of the past decade in college baseball if Carlos Rodon hadn’t rendered that discussion moot.
Puk’s been at or near the top of his draft class since last year, and he could become the highest-drafted Iowan of all time if he goes first to the Phillies or second to the Reds. It would be the continued progression for a pitcher who went from elite showcases and travel ball in high school to one of the best college programs in the country. He’s now in line to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million to $7 million.
Puk is going to get that money because the velocity, the off-speed stuff, and the physicality are all there. He’s got to refine his command, prove he can handle a 200-inning workload, and get pro hitters out, but there’s no projection left, no need to imagine. We’ve seen front-end-starter flashes from him already. That makes for a no. 1 starter ceiling, which few other prospects in this draft can claim. The concerns about Puk’s repeatability are legitimate, but the potential, well, is enormous.