Florida's A.J. Puk wasn't the first player picked in the 2016 MLB Draft on Thursday. But he didn't have to wait all that long to hear his name called: The Oakland Athletics took him with the No. 6 pick of the first round, making him Florida's highest-drafted pitcher ever.
Puk, a 6'7" lefty and Florida junior, has dazzled scouts for years with his blazing fastball and wipeout slider/curve, and has done enough in an up-and-down Florida career to make up for somewhat underwhelming stats.
Puk is just 2-3 with a 3.21 ERA in 2016, and has never posted an ERA under 3.19 in his time at Florida, but he has been the victim of awful run support in 2016. Fellow starter Alex Faedo has posted a nearly identical ERA (3.19) to Puk's, but has a 10-1 record as a result of making many of his starts on Sundays.
The appeal of Puk lies not in wins and losses, or even in ERA, but in tools and projectability. Puk's fastball can threaten triple digits for much of an outing, and his sliding curveball has a wicked bite; it's very tempting to see shades of fellow towering lefty Randy Johnson in him. If he can add a third plus pitch, sharpen his control, and begin to pitch deeper into games, Puk could evolve from a flamethrower who has 245 strikeouts in 190.1 innings as a Gator to a more complete pitcher who could dominate the pros.
Puk was long rumored as a potential No. 1 pick, and he would have become the Florida Gators' first No. 1 pick in any sport if the Philadelphia Phillies had tabbed him in the first round of the 2016 MLB Draft on Thursday night.
He may have failed his last big test prior to the MLB Draft, though, in allowing three runs to UConn in the fifth inning of Florida's regional win on Saturday. Baseball America managing editor J.J. Cooper harped on that failure on Twitter on Thursday night.
Don't want to overemphasize it but A.J. Puk's 5th inning in the NCAA regionals cost him some money.— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) June 9, 2016
Scouting director said you couldn't ignore it. Puk was given lead to hold against Connecticut. Handed it right back, couldn't get out of 5th— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) June 9, 2016
Puk does have a history of not going deep into games.
Worry with Puk? He averaged 4 2/3 innings per start this year. Has pitched into 8th once in 3 years at Florida.— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) June 9, 2016
And his fall is going to cost him a lot of money up front.
Top slot was $9 mill...slot at 5 is $4.3 mill...the dropoff is steep.— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) June 9, 2016
Instead of going with Puk, the Phillies drafted California high schooler Mickey Moniak, forestalling that bit of history for at least one more year, and leaving Neal Walk, the No. 2 pick of the Phoenix Suns in the 1969 NBA Draft, as the highest-drafted Gator in a Big Four sport. (Abby Wambach was also selected with the No. 2 pick by the Washington Freedom in the WUSA Player Draft in 2002.)
Mike Zunino remains Florida's highest MLB Draft pick ever. Zunino went No. 3 to the Seattle Mariners in 2012.
Puk is Florida's 62nd MLB Draft pick under Kevin O'Sullivan, adding to a total that leads the talent-rich SEC over that span, and joins Zunino as the Gators' second top-10 pick under O'Sullivan.