(I originally wrote JA Puk in the title before noticing it and correcting it shortly before posting. That’s unremarkable except for the fact that I recently was given a Pirates JA Happ as a stylistic comp for Puk — more fastballs, more sliders/less curves, more changeups — that I had completely forgotten about until I made that typo. Funny how the brain works sometimes…)
I’ve been tough on AJ Puk in the past, but I think I’m finally ready to give in. I’m at peace with him being the first overall pick in this year’s draft. I mean, we all knew the Phillies were all over him going back to when Pat Gillick went south down to Gainesville to watch him throw during fall ball, but only know am I ready to accept it as a good thing. Or, perhaps more accurately, I can now accept it at least as a non-bad thing. This was written here back in October…
If I had to predict what player will actually go number one this June, I’d piggy-back on what others have already said and put my vote in for AJ Puk. The Phillies are my hometown team and while I’m not as well-connected to their thinking as I am with a few other teams, based on the snippets of behind the scenes things I’ve heard (not much considering it’s October, but it’s not like they aren’t thinking about it yet) and the common sense reporting elsewhere (they lean towards a quick-moving college player, preferably a pitcher) all point to Puk. He’s healthy, a good kid (harmless crane climbing incident aside), and a starting pitcher all the way. Puk joining Alfaro, Knapp, Crawford, Franco, Williams, Quinn, Herrera, Altherr, Nola, Thompson, Eickhoff, Eflin, and Giles by September 2017 makes for a pretty intriguing cost-controlled core.
(It’s pretty great for Phillies fans that they can now swap out Giles’s name for Velasquez, Appel, and Eshelman. I’ve saved this analysis for friends and family I like to annoy with this sort of thing via email, but there are so many Cubs/Phillies rebuild parallels that it’s freaky. The only bummer is that there is no Kris Bryant in this class and that the Phillies might be too good in 2016 to land a Kyle Schwarber type next June. Still, where the Cubs were last year, I expect the Phillies to be in 2018. Enjoy this down time while you can, Mets and Nationals. The Phillies are coming fast.)
Now that May is here it’s time to accept the inevitability of Puk wearing red pinstripes…or, more immediately, Clearwater Thresher red and blue. I’ve long been in the “like but not love” camp when it comes to Puk, partly because of my belief there were superior talents ahead of him in this class and partly because of the handful of red flags that dot his dossier. The three biggest knocks on Puk coming into the season were, in some order, 1) command, 2) inconsistent quality of offspeed offerings, and 3) good but not great athleticism. It says a lot about what he does well that he’s risen as a prospect in my mind despite not really answering any of the questions we had for him coming into the season. All of this has held up so far…
Extension, deception, and power would be three words that come immediately to mind when describing Puk. He’s every bit of 6-7, 225 with a delivery that hides the ball damn well. His power comes both with his left arm (92-96, 98 peak) and at the plate (he’d quickly be among the better hitting pitchers in the game), so it’s no big shock that some guy on the internet (that’s me) sees some similarities between him and the prospect version of Madison Bumgarner.
I’ll be quick to point out again that it says “prospect version of Madison Bumgarner” without speaking to what the San Francisco ace grew into as a finished product in the big leagues. Bumgarner is a kind of special player who just kept adding on and getting better as he progressed up the chain. That’s not something that you can predict for any other prospect, though you can’t really rule it out either. You don’t know either way, is the point. Putting Bumgarner aside for now, I think there are two recent-ish draft lefthanders that can help create a basis for what to expect out of AJ Puk in the early stages of his pro career. In terms of a realistic prospect upside, Puk reminds me a great deal of recently promoted big league pitcher Sean Manaea.
Their deliveries are hardly identical – Puk is more over the top while Manaea slings it from more of an angle, plus Puk has a more pronounced step-back with his right foot at the onset and a longer stride, both aspects of his delivery that I personally like as it gives him better balance throughout – but they aren’t so different that you’d point to mechanics as a reason for tossing the comparison aside. They have similar stuff starting with fastballs close in velocity and movement (Puk has been 90-94 this year, up to 97), inconsistent yet promising low- to mid-80s sliders that flash above-average to plus (82-86 and more frequently showing above-average this year for Puk), and changeups still in need of development that clearly would be classified as distant third pitches (Puk’s has been 82-88 so far). Both have missed a lot of bats while also having their ups and downs in the control department with Puk being better at the former while Manaea maintained a slight edge at the latter. Both are also very well-proportioned, physical lefthanders with intimidating size with which they know how to use to their advantage.
A cautionary comparison for Puk might be current Mariners minor leaguer James Paxton. Paxton and Puk are closer mechanically – more similar with the height of their leg kick and overall arm action, though Paxton is more deliberate across the board — than Manaea and Puk, but the big difference between the former SEC lefthander and the current SEC lefthander is the breaking ball. Paxton’s bread and butter is a big overhand curve, a pitch that remains unhittable to this day when he can command it. Puk’s slider has its moments and it’s fair to expect it to develop into a true big league out-pitch (I do), but it’s not quite on that level yet. Paxton’s career has stalled for many of the same reasons some weren’t particularly high on Puk coming into the season: up and down fastball velocity partly attributable to a series of nagging injuries (also a problem of Manaea’s at times), an underdeveloped changeup, and consistently inconsistent command. I think Puk is ahead of where Paxton was at similar points in their development and prefer his ceiling to what we’ve seen out of Paxton to date, but the realistic floor comp remains in play.
One additional notable (or not) similarity between Puk, Manaea, Paxton, and Sean Newcomb, a fourth player often thrown into the mix as a potential Puk point of reference (it’s not bad, but Newcomb’s control issues are greater than anything Puk has dealt with), comes via each player’s respective hometown. We’ve got Cedar Rapids (IA), Valparaiso (IN), Ladner (BC), and Brockton (MA). That’s two raised in the Midwest, one in Canada, and one in New England. When you start to piece everything together, the similar career trajectories for each young pitcher (so far) begin to make some sense. All come from cold weather locales, all are large men with long limbs (thus making coordinating said limbs more of a challenge), and all are lefthanders, a fact that may or may not matter to you depending on your view of whether or not lefties really do develop later than their righthanded counterparts.
Put me down for a realistic Sean Manaea type of upside, a James Paxton floor, and the crazy pipe dream where literally everything works out developmentally ceiling of Madison Bumgarner. Do those potential career paths add up to a 1-1 draft pick? I’m not sure I have a good answer for that yet.
I think it is fair to say that the Puk to Philadelphia movement is propped up in part by the simple notion that somebody has to go first in this draft. There’s an undeniable element of winning the 1-1 race by default at play here – some players have risen to at least get their names in the conversation, but, no matter how much I’ve tried to will it to happen, that obvious 1-1 player does not yet exist in this class – so that should be something taken into consideration when putting Puk’s potential pro prospect status in context. You won’t be able to look at him as being the kind of slam dunk impact talent that many expect to see at the top of a major sport’s draft board, but perhaps that expectation shouldn’t exist for the baseball draft in the first place. My first two drafts with this site active had true “can’t miss” guys in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, but has any draft from 2011 to the present day really had a first overall pick that felt like a sure thing? Maybe Brady Aiken in 2014, but that’s a hard claim to put on a high school pitcher by definition. Carlos Rodon, the third pick that year, felt surer, but even he had a draft season when he was picked apart for things such as fastball command, a dip in velocity, an underdeveloped changeup, average athleticism, and spotty control. Hey, am I nuts or are do those concerns remind you of anybody from this class? Kris Bryant was absolutely that guy in 2013, but the Astros confused us all by going with Mark Appel in the top spot. Carlos Correa, the actual 1-1 in 2012, was pretty close to that level, as was Lucas Giolito, the number two prospect even with the injury red flag (behind Correa) on my board. Both were high school prospects with at least some doubt – health for Giolito, slightly underscouted summer and spring for Correa – so I could go either way on them. You could argue for Gerrit Cole in 2011 as well, but there’s a little bit of hindsight bias there as he’s closer to a present day Puk as a college prospect than many want to remember. Not that I’m the one true authority on these things, but I actually had Anthony Rendon ahead of Cole in that class, so that’s a potential argument against Cole being a clear-cut number one from day one.
Long stroll through recent draft history short, I don’t think the fact we have uncertainty at the top of this year’s draft is all that rare. Puk might feel a bit underwhelming, but that’s selling his flashes of dominance on the mound short. When he’s right, he’s a worthy 1-1 pick. He’s got a big fastball he can lean on through skillful adding and subtracting, a slider that he can throw for strikes or bury depending on the situation, and a good enough changeup that keeps hitters from sitting on the breaking ball. Getting him right more consistently and for longer stretches of time will be the challenges he and his pro developmental staff will have to overcome.
(For as much as I’ve come around on Puk, I still think Jay Groome is the best prospect in this class and the closest thing to the classic 1-1 type available.)