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Rushing A.J. Puk to the majors would be a mistake

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The only correct answer is for the Oakland A’s top prospect to open 2018 in the minor leagues.

Oakland Athletics Photo Day Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s rotation has struggled mightily so far this spring. Sure, Cactus League stats don’t matter, but the young group was already expected to be shaky and unreliable and they’ve spent the last two weeks being exactly that. It’s one thing to write off the spring slump of an established star, but these guys don’t really have strong MLB track records to fall back on. It’s understandable to worry about the team’s pitching.

There has been a bright spot, though, in lefty A.J. Puk. He’s the top prospect in the whole organization, he was dominant in the minors last summer, he can hit 97 mph with his fastball, and he hasn’t allowed a run yet in the Cactus League. He’s almost certainly the most talented pitcher the A’s have right now, big club included.

This situation has naturally led to hot takes, with calls for Puk to make the Opening Day roster. You’d expect this preference for instant gratification from casual fans, but even Scott Ostler of the S.F. Chronicle took the bait in his article on Tuesday:

The A’s likely will send lefty A.J. Puk to the minors to start the season.

“That’s a wise and reasonable decision,” says every hitter in the American League.

Hell, yeah. Why open the season with your best pitcher?

Puk is young (23 next month) and raw. In the NBA, 20-year-old rookies routinely make an impact on the most difficult sport, in front of packed houses. Yet the A’s fear that Puk might crumble emotionally if asked to throw a baseball in front of hundreds of A’s fans.

Whoa, calm the Puk down. On the spectrum of #hottakes, this registers somewhere around “Facebook comment.” It doesn’t even constitute true analysis, as much as yelling at clouds. I’m not even sure where to begin.

Puk has pitched two games this spring. He’s thrown five innings. That’s it. Not even one full MLB quality start worth of work. Even if we were talking about real regular season action instead of exhibition games, that still wouldn’t be remotely close to enough data to draw any meaningful conclusions. Literally five innings.

And what about Puk’s eye-popping 2017 performance? He was excellent, no question about that, but not in the sense of knocking on the door to Oakland. Here are some facts about his resume (h/t to BWH):

  • He’s completed the third time through the lineup twice in his entire pro career.
  • He’s never thrown a pitch in the 8th inning of a pro game that he started.
  • He’s never thrown more than 125 innings in a season.
  • He’s never pitched in Triple-A.

None of these are long-term problems. Everyone’s career starts somewhere. But in terms of his development, the next priorities clearly involve building up that endurance and mastering the third time through a lineup. He also still has work to do on his command, by his own admission (via Martin Gallegos, East Bay Times). There’s more to being MLB-ready than just having great stuff.

We don’t even need to use our imaginations on this one. There’s an uncanny comp right here on our team in Sean Manaea. Two years ago, the big lefty was in an identical situation. He was the A’s top prospect, and ranked Top 50 overall on most national lists. His minor league experience topped out at a brief but excellent Double-A stint, and his career high sat around 122 innings. He opened the spring of 2016 by allowing one run in his first 6⅔ frames, while Sonny Gray and Rich Hill and the rest of the rotation floundered in the Cactus League.

How did that story turn out? Manaea didn’t end up making the team out of spring camp, but he did get rushed up to the bigs on April 29 after just three brilliant Triple-A games. His debut MLB stint featured nine starts:

Manaea, first 9 starts: 6.02 ERA, 49⅓ ip, 40 Ks, 16 BB, 8 HR, 4.73 FIP

That tour ended with a forearm injury. Fortunately he returned to the mound quickly, and he even pitched better in the second half of the season thanks to increased use of his changeup. But that’s the kind of basic adjustment that could just as easily have been sorted out in the minors, rather than spending two months losing MLB games to get there. The problem isn’t that Manaea “crumbled emotionally,” as the self-proclaimed crabby curmudgeon Ostler posits in regard to Puk, it’s that he wasn’t yet good enough to win MLB games despite his excellent tools. And he still hasn’t fully figured it out, after following his inconsistent 2016 with a mediocre 2017.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with Puk reaching Oakland sometime this year. Maybe it’ll be June and maybe it’ll be September, but a midseason promotion could wind up being completely reasonable. I believe in him as much as everyone else does. The question, though, is what anyone has to gain from getting him up here to begin April.

There’s no argument that rushing Puk to MLB would improve his own individual development. There’s still an entire level of the upper minors that he hasn’t experienced, and no particular reason why he’s such a special, generational case that he has to skip Triple-A entirely. Furthermore, if logically airtight baseball reasons aren’t enough, the reality of the sport’s business model dictates that waiting a couple months now earns the A’s an extra year of team control down the road — regardless of whether that turns out to be an extra year in green and gold in 2024, or extra value on a future trade.

As for the team’s fortunes, there’s not much to gain there either. Let’s not kid ourselves: This is not a contending season for Oakland. This is a bridge year for the young core to gain experience and begin their rise, with an eye on 2019. There’s always the chance of unexpected success like in 2012, but don’t hold your breath. Hope for improvement toward .500 and be ecstatic with anything more.

Adding one rookie pitcher for an extra couple months in April/May isn’t going to change that. If we were legit contenders, or even on the cusp like the Brewers and Twins, then perhaps it would be worth striving for every last ounce of production that might earn you a crucial extra win. But even if Puk panned out immediately and won the Rookie Of The Year, the A’s would still almost certainly miss the playoffs while burning a year of his service time. More likely, he’ll throw five innings at a time and struggle with pitch-count efficiency while mixing in an occasional disaster outing, all of which won’t move the needle at all in the team’s standings.

If the A’s needed an extra boost right now to complete an otherwise postseason-caliber roster, or if Puk himself had mastered Triple-A and would be wasting time if he remained there for even one more game, then putting him on the Opening Day roster could make sense. Neither of those things are true, so the A’s are being wise to wait until one is. Patience is a virtue, and sometimes it’s a no-brainer too.

Epilogue

One more thing: Let’s address that basketball analogy. All sports rely on a different combination of skill vs. athleticism. Basketball is much further toward the athleticism side and baseball toward the skill side. That’s why a physical monster like Shaq can be an NBA Hall Of Famer despite being utterly incapable of actually shooting the ball, while an anthropomorphic cantaloupe like Bartolo Colon can extend his MLB career into age 44.

The 20-year-old hoops prospect still has skills to learn and develop, but in the meantime just his athleticism alone is enough to contribute in a way that an equivalent baseball draftee can’t hope to match. The difference in quality between amateur and pro is significantly higher in baseball than in other sports. A dunk is a dunk at any level and height alone can earn you at least some rebounds, but nothing will prepare you to hit MLB breaking balls or consistently fool MLB hitters except for years of practice — and your physical tools will be meaningless until you pass those initial obstacles. You can’t steal first base with just your speed, etc.

That’s why the last amateur baseball player to skip the minors and go straight from the draft to the bigs was Mike Leake in 2010, and before him Xavier Nady in 2000 (for one plate appearance), and before him our own Ariel Prieto in 1995. That’s three total in over two decades, and it didn’t exactly go great for any of them. Baseball has four levels of full-season minor leagues, plus more short-season levels, while the NBA only recently established its own single-level developmental league. College basketball is the minor leagues. Comparing these two sports in this way is intellectually lazy.