AJ Puk just moved into his spring training home in Scottsdale, Arizona, when he received a life-altering phone call.
He was told the Oakland Athletics had traded him to the Miami Marlins in exchange for outfielder JJ Bleday.
On the Move
The Feb. 11 deal caught Puk completely by surprise, forcing him to move coast-to-coast at a moment’s notice.
“Definitely a shock with just how close it was to spring training,” Puk said. “I’m preparing to be an ‘A’ and then three days before spring started, I got the trade.”
The Marlins traded for Puk to clean up a bullpen that sported the ninth-worst earned run average in Major League Baseball last year. The Marlins gave up on Bleday, the fourth overall pick in the 2019 draft who struggled in his rookie season with Miami.
Puk, who pitched for the Florida Gators from 2014 to 2016, was selected by Oakland with the sixth pick in the 2016 draft. He was a key rotation cog of the 2015 and 2016 Gators squads that reached the College World Series but ultimately fell short of Omaha glory. He recorded a 3.39 ERA in 194 innings pitched during his time in Gainesville.
First off the board for the #Gators: LHP AJ Puk
Headed to the @OaklandAs w/ the No. 6 overall pick. Congrats AJ! pic.twitter.com/5zvqTsTgQZ
— Florida Gators Baseball (@GatorsBB) June 9, 2016
The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native was teammates with several current MLB players while wearing the Orange & Blue, including Pete Alonso (New York Mets), Jonathan India (Cincinnati Reds) and Brady Singer (Kansas City Royals). He says he keeps in touch with them regularly.
“It’s fun playing against those guys and meeting up with them and just saying ‘what’s up?’,” Puk said. “I’m definitely following their careers and just seeing all the success guys are having.”
Puk named former Gators pitchers Karsten Whitson and Keenan Kish as his college mentors. Both were seniors when he was a clean-shaven freshman in 2014.
“We had a close group of friends and a good core there and it was really fun being around it all,” Puk said.
Injuries riddled Puk’s early career and kept him off the field for extended periods.
Puk underwent Tommy John Surgery in April 2018 just before his third minor league season to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow. It was just the first of many trials Puk endured.
The lanky six-foot-seven-inch left-hander completed the year-long rehab process and made his MLB debut in August 2019, pitching in 10 games that year.
The injury bug struck again when Puk hurt his shoulder, leading to another surgery that kept him out for all of 2020. He returned for 12 games in 2021, allowing nine earned runs in 13.1 innings before going under the knife again for his second shoulder surgery that September.
2022 was a breakout year for Puk, who maintained his health and showed signs of the prospect he had once been years prior.
Puk threw a career-high 66.1 innings for Oakland last year, putting up a 3.12 ERA in 62 relief appearances. It was a much-needed breakthrough for a player who had gone through so much.
Given Miami's uncertain bullpen, I can definitely see AJ Puk factoring into the saves mix at some point this season.
Getting Puk into Miami's great pitching development organization is also quite exciting. pic.twitter.com/PhsN5MBcjQ
— Eric Cross (@EricCross04) February 12, 2023
“[The injuries] are all just learning experiences, learning about my body and the stuff I can do to stay healthy,” Puk said, “Things happen in baseball. If you can escape a career injury free, you’re a pretty lucky player, but they happen, and you just got to learn why they happened and just go from there.”
Fresh Start with a New Staff
Puk said he brought in a new supporting cast to help make small tweaks in his routine. He worked with new trainers and pitching coaches to help make sure he stayed on the field. In Miami, he will have the benefit of working with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr., who has a reputation for extracting the best performances out of his arms.
Stottlemyre was one of the only holdovers on the coaching staff when Skip Schumaker was hired as the next Marlins manager (replacing Don Mattingly) on Oct. 25.
Puk said he is excited to play for Schumaker. As a Cardinals fan growing up, Puk watched Schumaker win a pair of World Series championships in St. Louis in 2006 and 2011.
Schumaker is even more eager to see how Puk can contribute to his bullpen.
“He’s a very uncomfortable at-bat,” Schumaker said, “It’s deception. There’s funk. There’s 98 with a real slider and his changeup has really come along. He’s a real weapon. Whether it’s the seventh or ninth inning, anything in between.”
Puk said he has already started to buy into Schumaker’s philosophy and looks forward to seeing what his team can accomplish in the National League East gauntlet.
“The atmosphere is great. Everyone comes in here ready to work every day. Everyone just wants to get better and just go out there and win some ballgames,” Puk said.
What Puk Brings to Miami
Puk was originally developed as a starter by Oakland before switching to the bullpen when he was in Triple-A. Prior to the trade, the Athletics planned to have him compete for a rotation spot in spring training. Due to the Marlins’ abundance of starting pitching options, the back end of the bullpen should be where Puk finds his roots.
Puk’s arsenal is christened by a fastball that touches 98 mph. His slider sits at 87 mph and pairs well with a 96-mph sinker. He also features a changeup and curveball, but rarely uses them. He experienced a hiccup this spring when his debut was pushed back by slight tightness in his adductor. Puk made his first spring appearance on March 10. He has struck out seven in three scoreless innings so far this month.
AJ Puk makes his Marlins debut. First pitch was 95 mph. pic.twitter.com/kPtq3bbsET
— Isaac Azout (@IsaacAzout) March 11, 2023
As he looks to continue his success in South Florida, Puk said he will be content with whatever role he is given.
“I just want to go out there and help the team win,” Puk said. “I’m happy to be here. It’s a great bunch of talent in this room so I’m definitely excited to see where it goes.”