Photo: Tim Casey

Puk pick? Early 1st-Rnd likely

Jeff Dahn

Published: Thursday, April 28, 2016

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been six years since a newly minted 15-year-old A.J. Puk made his Perfect Game debut playing for PG Green in the 2010 Iowa Spring League. Listed at 6-foot-1, 160-pounds, the left-handed throwing and hitting Puk was just finishing up his freshman year at Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Washington High School and was already being recognized as one the top athletes in Eastern Iowa, if not the entire state.

As a sophomore in the fall of 2010, the strong-armed Puk was Washington’s starting varsity quarterback and led the Warriors to the Iowa Class 4A (big school) football playoffs. A year later, the then 6-foot-4, 190-pound Puk – who had upped his fastball velocity from 78 mph in the 2010 PG Iowa Spring League to 87 mph at the PG Midwest Top Prospect Showcase in August 2011 – had bid a fond farewell to football and set out on a determined journey to one day play Major League Baseball.

Today, after five years pitching and playing first base for the C.R. Washington varsity baseball team, four years participating in 28 Perfect Game tournaments and showcases and three years developing into a collegiate PG All-American at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Puk in on the cusp of making history.

The now 6-foot-7, 230-pound Florida junior has been mentioned in the “first player picked overall” conversation in regard to the upcoming 2016 MLB First-Year Player Draft’s first-round, which would make Puk the first native Iowan and first Florida Gator ever selected with the top overall pick.

That speculation is not just some people talking, either. Puk was especially impressive during the second half of the 2015 regular season and throughout the postseason, which culminated with the Gators advancing to the semifinal round of the College World Series. While Puk has always been dreamed upon by MLB scouting departments and front offices, his performance last season only served to heighten their interest.

As Perfect Game National Scouting Director/Event Coordinator Andrew Krause wrote early this month: “Puk’s destination and landing spot in this June’s draft is dependent on his ability to consistently harness his stuff. There is little doubt that he’ll be off the board very early if he’s able to replicate his late 2015 form in the coming (weeks). Scouts, cross-checkers and directors will assuredly keep close tabs on him as the (college season) progresses; (his) upside is tantalizing.”

There really wasn’t anything unconventional about Puk’s climb to the top of the MLB draft board, save for the turmoil that surrounded his status when he graduated from Washington High in the spring of 2013 with a 3.90 grade-point average and the No. 23 national prospect ranking in his class.

He had already signed with head coach Kevin O’Sullivan and the Florida Gators by the time he had received his high school diploma, of course, and armed with a low-90s fastball, an 80 mph changeup and a 75 mph curveball, talk started to focus on the 2013 Amateur Draft.

And it wasn’t just Puk’s pitching adding fuel to the draft fire. He had also developed into an outstanding left-handed hitter, the type, according to one PG scouting report, “who can hit for both average and power and draw walks.” Or, as PG Vice President of Player Personnel David Rawnsley wrote in 2013:

“A.J. Puk has a dilemma. He is a very good hitter and he really, really likes to hit. But in the big picture, he is a better pitching prospect. Should Puk decide to go pro out of high school he may be doing so with the understanding that he is putting his hitting career behind him. … He has signed with the University of Florida where he would be able to continue his career as both a pitcher and as a hitter.”

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Puk let MLB front offices and scouting departments know they should remove him from their respective boards – he was going to honor his commitment to O’Sullivan and the Gators. The Detroit Tigers selected him in the 35th round anyway, but it mattered not. Puk’s bags were already packed and he was on his way to Gainesville.

“It was definitely one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Puk told Perfect Game in a recent telephone interview. “Coach Kevin O’Sullivan stuck with me and I’ve always been grateful for that. He helps me out a lot and it’s just been a great experience.

“I’ve learned a lot just being here,” he continued. “I remember when I was in high school, I liked watching baseball but now that I’m in college I actually know more about what’s going on, I actually know what the pitchers are trying to do, and with everything it’s just way more enjoyable.”

Puk was a two-way player his first two years on the Gainesville campus and made an immediate impact. As a freshman in 2014, he made 20 pitching appearances – seven starts – and finished 5-2 with one save and posted a 3.19 ERA. His fastball was then sitting in the mid-90s, and he struck-out 46 and walked 18 in 42 1/3 innings of work; he was 4-1 with a 3.44 ERA in 10 Southeastern Conference (SEC) appearances (two starts), striking out 17 in 18 1/3 innings. Additionally, Puk was 14-for-63 (.222) at the plate with three doubles and six RBI.

Last season, the big lefty made 14 starts in 17 appearances and finished 9-4 with a 3.81 ERA. He struck-out a team high 104 batters in 78 innings pitched and threw a complete game, three-hit shutout at Arkansas in the quarterfinal round of the SEC Tournament, striking out 11. He was 4-2 in SEC regular season play with 55 punch-outs in 35 1/3 innings.

It was late in the campaign when Puk showed his best stuff from the mound. The Gators won eight of the last nine games in which he appeared, with the one loss a 1-0 setback at the hands of eventual national champion Virginia in the College World Series; he allowed only one run on four hits with five strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings in that loss. He was especially sharp during the 2015 postseason, going 2-1 with a 1.54 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings over four starts.

The Gators finished 52-18 overall after going 3-2 at the College World Series (both losses and one of the wins came against Virginia) and they were 12-3 in postseason play (4-1 SEC Tournament, 3-0 NCAA Gainesville Regional, 2-0 NCAA Gainesville Super Regional, 3-2 NCAA CWS). It was a terrific run but it left Puk and the other players who would return in 2016 thirsting for more.

“Last year was a great year for our whole team,” he said. “I know that we didn’t reach out ultimate goal but that’s with us still and that’s what we’re going to go after this year. … Our goal is to win another SEC championship like we did our freshmen year, win the SEC Tournament and then get back to Omaha and win the whole thing. That’s always been our goal and we’re going to keep working hard to get there.”

Puk, who celebrated his 21st birthday April 25, was named a Perfect Game College Preseason First Team All-American ahead of the 2016 season, joining junior right-handed Friday night starter Logan Shore and junior outfielder Buddy Reed as Gators named to the First Team.

Florida was ranked No. 1 in PG’s Preseason College Top 25 Rankings, relinquished the top spot for two weeks in mid-April and returned there just this week. The Gators are 36-6 overall and 13-5 in the SEC heading into this weekend’s three-game SEC series with No. 8 South Carolina in Columbia, S.C., and they’ve won seven of their last eight games overall.

Florida’s pitching staff was considered the team’s strength coming into the season, led by returning starters Shore, Puk, sophomore right-hander Alex Faedo and junior right-hander Dane Dunning. Junior left-hander Kirby Snead and junior righty Shaun Anderson returned to make the Gators’ bullpen one of the nation’s best, and freshman right-hander Jackson Kowar was expected to contribute immediately; none have disappointed.

Puk’s junior season to date has been a little bit inconsistent: he is 2-2 with a 3.07 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 41 innings after nine starts. He left his April 3 start against Texas A&M after only 10 pitches due to back spasms and didn’t pitch again for 11 days, but returned on top of his game. In his two starts since that A&M outlining he has allowed three earned runs on eight hits while striking out 19 and walking four in 11 2/3 innings.

There is great camaraderie among the Florida pitchers: “It’s kind of like a competition between us,” Puk said. “Shore will go out and do his thing and then I’ll go out and try to match him or do even better, and it goes right down the line. We talk a lot about the other teams and we enjoy really good friendships with each other; it’s just great.”

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his performances on the ballfield, and O’Sullivan told PG that “speaks volumes” to where the young pitcher is mentally in terms of taking care of business and staying the course. His performances on the mound speak to the same positive attributes.

“Everybody that had seen him in high school obviously sees the improvements he’s made,” O’Sullivan said. “Coming back this spring, I was really, really pleased with the way his body looked; it was clear to me that had done some work over the break. I think he’s really prepared and I think he’s matured a tremendous amount; he’s taken on more of a leadership role.

“(Puk’s) a very good teammate; I really believe that,” he continued. “For a kid that’s had so much expected from him to do as well as he’s done in the classroom and to be as good of a teammate as he’s been and for him to take care of himself and make himself better, says a lot about where he’s at.”

That praise comes as no surprise to the people who know Puk when he was growing up in Cedar Rapids, including many long-time PG employees and instructors that first saw Puk hanging around PG’s old indoor facility starting when he was around 12 years old.

He is an alumnus of 28 Perfect Game events, including four seasons (2010-13) in the Iowa Spring Wood Bat League and two seasons (2011-12) in the Iowa Fall Wood Bat League. He was named to the Top Prospect List at seven PG showcases between 2011 and 2013, and was named to the All-Tournament Team at seven PG events those same three years.

Two of those all-tournament selections came at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. (2011 with Reds Midwest Scout Team; 2012 with EvoShield Canes); two others came at the prestigious 17u PG WWBA National Championship and the 17u PG World Series, both in 2012.

Puk also played in the 2012 Perfect Game All-American Classic, a game that featured fellow 2016 PG College Preseason All-Americans Chris Okey (Clemson), Zack Collins (Miami), Nick Banks (Texas A&M) and Ryan Boldt (Nebraska), along with several current top minor league prospects.

“Playing against all the top competition on the other teams from all across the country really got me ready to come and play in college,” Puk said. “(PG events) gave me the exposure when I was able to come down to Florida and I was very lucky that Perfect Game was there.”

No. 1 Florida has 14 games remaining on its 2016 regular season schedule, including huge SEC three-game series with No. 8 South Carolina, Tennessee, No. 7 Vanderbilt and No. 15 Louisiana State. The Gamecocks (14-4) lead both the SEC overall and SEC East Division standings by one game over the Gators (13-5) and the overall standings by two over West Division leader Texas A&M (12-6). There is still a lot to play for.

“We want to be in this position and we’re going to keep working hard to stay there,” Puk said. “We’re not going to think about it very much, we’re just going to go out there and play and just let our play speak for itself.”

Puk has a lot to play for on the individual side of the coin, as well. PG ranks him the No. 5 overall prospect in this year’s draft behind New Jersey high school left-hander Jason Groome, Kansas high school right-hander Riley Pint, University of Louisville outfielder Corey Ray and California high school outfielder Blake Rutherford. All five prospects are alumni of the PG National Showcase – Ray was at the 2012 National in Minneapolis with Puk – and Groome and Rutherford join Puk as alumni of the Perfect Game All-American Classic.

Any way it’s sliced or diced, a selection in the first-round of this year’s MLB draft provides all the affirmation needed that Puk’s decision to head to the University of Florida for three years of further development and maturation before turning pro was certainly a good one. And that decision to give up football way back in the fall of 2011? Well, that was a pretty good one too.

Not that it was easy. It’s worth noting that A.J.’s father, Dr. David Puk, was a four-year football letterman and Academic All-American at the University of Minnesota in the early to mid-1980s. His uncle J.J. Puk was an all-Big Ten linebacker at the University of Iowa in the late ‘80s and two other uncles, Steven and Kevin Puk, were football lettermen at Minnesota and Stanford, respectively, in the ‘80s and the ‘90s.

Back in February of 2012, when A.J. was in attendance at the PG Pitcher/Catcher Indoor Showcase in Cedar Rapids, David Puk was asked about his son’s decision to leave behind what looked to be a promising football career and pursue what proved to be a very promising baseball career. Dr. Puk went right to the heart of the matter:

“Without Perfect Game -- without their guidance, without their mentorship – they’ve kind of set the path,” David Puk said. “Every time we’re thinking ‘What do we do next?’ the next opportunity comes along. Perfect Game has been the stage and without it – who’s A.J. Puk? With it, he’s going to Florida.

“Did I think we’d be sitting here with an offer from Florida to play and accepting that? No – you just have to pinch me sometimes. … He’s worked hard for it, no doubt.” Almost amazingly, there’s still a lot more to come.

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