Spring training is finally here, and Cactus League games start Friday. This week, amid news of multiple rebuilding trades that signal the end of one era of Oakland baseball and the beginning of a new one, we also got our first real spring camp update of the year.
One of the most confounding figures over the past couple of seasons has been former 6th-overall draft pick A.J. Puk, who has struggled to just stay on the mound for the better part of his pro career. Tommy John surgery, biceps problems, and repeated shoulder issues have dampened Puk’s star since joining the organization, with many wondering if he’ll be able to even stay healthy as a bullpen arm. He’s gone from the top prospect in the organization to a total question mark.
It seems the A’s haven’t let the constant injuries discourage them to this point, though, with new manager Mark Kotsay saying Monday that Puk is still considered a rotation option for 2022, according to Matt Kawahara of the S.F. Chronicle.
Mark Kotsay said the plan for A.J. Puk this spring is to stretch him out and “give him an opportunity to win a spot in the rotation.”
Whether he makes the rotation more or less depends entirely on Puk at this stage, though. There will be multiple starting jobs available on the A’s pitching staff, and if he’s healthy then no other candidate can match his talent, so he’s mostly competing against himself. Puk has his clearest path yet to a big-league job, so if there ever were a time for him to have his breakthrough, it’s 2022.
That said, one can’t simply ignore the injury bug that seems to always follow Puk. It just doesn’t matter how talented he is if he can’t stay on the mound. There are some that believe his previous 2018 Tommy John surgery may have forced him to consciously or subconsciously alter his mechanics to put less strain on his elbow, only for that stress to end up in his shoulder, causing his rotator cuff and labrum injuries in late 2020. While we don’t have his medicals, an adjustment to his mechanics are worth keeping an eye on, and indeed he did switch to a lower arm slot last year.
Oakland has used Puk exclusively out of the bullpen in the major leagues so far, amassing only 22 appearances between the 2019 and 2021 seasons. What’s more, he’s also been used more out of the bullpen (39 appearances) than given starts (just 8) in the minor leagues over the past three years, and even with that reduced load he still kept getting hurt. So it’s a touch of a surprise to hear that Kotsay wants to give him another crack as a starter.
At the same time, it’s not surprising at all. With Oakland in rebuild mode, the A’s have everything to gain and not a whole lot to lose by letting Puk try to establish himself in the rotation this spring, and they can always end the experiment anytime. While no one can expect the ace that people projected coming out of college, even a middle-of-the-rotation or backend starter would be of value for an A’s franchise in desperate search of both collecting assets and getting great value at the same time.
For all the negative talk swirling around Puk and his injury history, he’s usually been good when able to actually get on the mound. In fact, the southpaw continues to strike out over 10 batters per 9, a step below his 13+ K/9 percentage in the lower minors but still above-average. His 6.08 ERA in the majors last year looks high, but his 3.32 FIP is an indicator that he was better than his ERA would suggest. There are still lots of things to like about Puk the pitcher, and it seems Kotsay and the front office agree.
There isn’t an answer yet on what Puk’s ultimate role is going to be. The hope for A’s fans is that the lanky lefty emerges from the pack to reach his sky-high potential while squashing that injury bug that’s hounded him for years. If the rotation isn’t his home, though, Oakland could still have the next Josh Hader or Andrew Miller on their hands, as a stud bullpen lefty that can go multiple innings. It would be a disappointing outcome for a prime draft pick that was previously billed as the next A’s ace, but after seven years it’s time to let go of the pedigree of being a high pick and recognize the reality of A.J. Puk in 2022: a roll of the dice.
How should Oakland handle Puk moving forward? Vote and discuss below!
What should A.J. Puk’s roll be in 2022?
This poll is closed
Keep trying him out as a starter
Move him to the bullpen already