Left-hander among favorites to be selected No. 1 overall by Phillies
By David Adler
Pitching two weeks before the 2016 Draft -- when every start is another sales pitch to the radar-gunning throngs of attendant Major League scouts -- A.J. Puk put on a show.
With Florida opening the SEC Tournament against Louisiana State, a matchup of two of the country's top college teams, the Gators' big 21-year-old junior left-hander -- a favorite to become the No. 1 overall pick when the Phillies open the Draft on Thursday -- loomed over the mound for his first 2016 postseason game.
Puk's heavy fastball sat in the mid-to-upper 90s. His power slider, as it does when it's on, slashed down in the mid-80s. Puk, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound Iowa native, twirled 7 1/3 stellar innings, holding the Tigers to two runs and striking out seven in his longest collegiate outing.
"I've always liked throwing on the big stage," Puk said after that May 25 outing. "I've always enjoyed it."
And he's long since grown used to the scouts, playing for a perennial Division I contender with 15 players drafted in Puk's two years with the team.
"I've always, in starts since my freshman year, I've seen the older guys through our program, all of the scouts show up," Puk said. "I'm accustomed to them being here and I just go out there and just play."
He's the older guy being scouted now, with a strong chance at becoming the first Iowan and Gator to be drafted first overall. It's for good reason. Puk's physical tools -- his size, stuff and velocity, all coming from a prototypical left-hander's frame -- jump off the page.
"He's a big left-handed guy, a big pro-body guy with tremendous upside," said St. John's coach Ed Blankmeyer, who was Puk's head coach on the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team last summer. "Big arm, and when he's on, he's lights-out. He's gonna make some organization very happy, because he's gonna pitch in the big leagues pretty quick."
When Puk has everything working, he's difficult to even touch. In the 2015 SEC Tournament, Puk struck out nine straight Arkansas Razorbacks, and 11 overall, while hitting 99 mph in seven innings of three-hit baseball. In the College World Series, he held eventual national champion Virginia to a run on four hits in 5 1/3 innings.
And over the summer, he pitched four innings of the Collegiate National Team's combined no-hitter against Cuba, the first time the Cubans had been no-hit in international competition. In that game, Blankmeyer said, Puk didn't even have his best stuff. It didn't matter.
"He's just got really high-level pitches," said Collegiate National Team pitching coach Gary Henderson. "He was aggressive, throwing his fastball and breaking ball for strikes and looking like a guy that's gonna go high in the Draft the following June."
Puk's not always sharp. He still needs to improve his control and command, and inconsistency has often plagued him at Florida. His slider's not always biting, and he only flashes a third pitch, a not-fully-developed changeup. On the health front, Puk has dealt with back spasms this season, but that seems to be a minor issue he's gotten over.
"Go back and look what his video looked like out of high school and see the progression he's made," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said after Puk's game against LSU. "If he makes the same progress over the next three years that he made the three years here, you've got a No. 1 starter. It's just that simple."
Puk will have maybe one or two more chances to make his case before the Draft, in the NCAA Tournament, which he enters with a 3.21 ERA this season and 95 strikeouts (but 31 walks) in 70 innings. Then everything's in the hands of the 30 MLB teams who could call his name -- though likely almost all of them will never even get that chance.
"He's got a world of talent. A world of talent," Blankmeyer said. "You have a guy who can run the ball up there, his arm works so good -- and I think there's more in that arm. He's special."
David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.