On June 9th, the Cincinnati Reds will have the 2nd selection in the 2016 MLB Amateur Draft. Over the next few weeks, the team here at Red Reporter will scour the internet to bring you scouting reports, statistics, and moving pictures of all of the prospects being linked to the Reds pick.
Once upon a time, there were gripes about the Cincinnati Reds targetting too many pitchers with their rebuild. Anthony Desclafani, Jonathon Crawford, John Lamb, Cody Reed, Brandon Finnegan, Keury Mella, Stephen Johnson and Rookie Davis are among the pitching prospects the Reds added over a series of trades in the last 18 months, with only a couple of (albeit productive) position players thrown into the mix. The persistently heavy lean on arms tested the patience of fans who were watching the likes of Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce and Zack Cozart come up in trade talks with no Corey Seager/Byron Buxton-esque prospects waiting in the wings to replace them.
We're now more than a quarter of the way through the 2016 season, however, and I don't think anyone out there is accusing the Reds of having "too many pitchers" anymore.
I bring this up because we're getting closer and closer to the team having to name their first selection in the draft, an amateur who, regardless of his position or age, will be looked upon as a big part of the Reds' rebuilding effort. Many pundits are predicting the Reds will take the best available position player, a strategy that could certainly be worth considering if they feel like they could land the next Jason Heyward or Carlos Correa. It may not, however, be set in stone.
And that's what gets me to A.J. Puk.
Puk is the kind of player that makes every scout watching him create a puddle of drool around their own feet. He's a 6-foot-7, 230 pound left-hander from the University of Florida who can reach 99 with his fastball and flashes a devastating slider with a plus change-up on his best days. Though this draft doesn't have a true 1-1 player, Puk is the first person most people name as the kind of prospect who could be deserving of that spot. He's been criticized for his lack of dominance this year for Florida, and dealt with some back spasms during the early part of the season. Still, the numbers have been very good, with a 2.88 ERA in 65.2 innings, a 90/31 K/BB line and a .188 opposing batting average.
Professional Scouting Grades (via Fueled By Sports)
MLB Pipeline has him ranked as the No. 5 prospect in the draft, and third ranked pitcher:
Big and strong, Puk arguably has the best raw stuff of any arm in the class, with the chance to have three plus pitches. He's capable of touching 96-97 mph with his fastball regulary. Ironically, he might have been at his best in the one inning he threw before his back acted up, showing a 96-99 mph fastball and a plus slider at 88-90 mph. He can maintain his velocity deep into starts and while his changeup is his third pitch, it should be Major League average in the future.
The Enquirer's C. Trent Rosecrans made a trip to watch Puk in action just this past Wednesday, and was impressed with what he saw:
At his best, he’s a future front-line starter. At worst, he’s a late-inning bullpen piece.
There’s plenty to dream on, and he showed it Wednesday. Even entering the eighth inning with 103 pitches, the stadium radar gun had him throwing 95. He’d allowed four hits with two walks and seven strikeouts over the first seven innings, and with the No. 9 hitter followed by two left-handed batters to start the inning, Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan sent him back out for an eighth inning. He gave up a pair of singles, with a run scoring on an error, before his coach went out to take the ball from him.
John Sickels posted his report on Puk near the end of April, just as Puk was coming out of his slump, and still dropped the "E" word:
Bottom line: although Puk's stock hasn't yet solidified as the top arm in the draft, he is still an elite talent and has shown some command improvements compared to last year. Barring a late injury he will certainly go very early, unlikely to get past the top five. If he pitches well down the stretch (and it looks like that may happen if his last start is any indicator), he could still very well go 1-1.
What Should The Reds Do?
So, let's get the obvious out of the way first: the Reds don't have the top pick in the draft. That honor belongs to the Phillies, and if they decide that Puk really is the truest 1-1 talent in the draft, the Reds may not even have the option of selecting him. Reports about Philadelphia's interest in him are mixed, with many assuming Puk would be their guy before Jayson Stark reported a couple of weeks back that the Phillies could be shifting their interest toward Mercer outfielder Kyle Lewis.
There's also the issue that the Reds haven't had the best luck with targetting high-round college arms in recent years, with names like Crawford (acquired via trade with Detroit), Nick Howard, Wyatt Strahan and Michael Lorenzen all showing serious health concerns in the early stages of their Reds careers.
But if he's available, the case for him is a strong one. He's got more experience starting than any of the pitchers mentioned in the last paragraph, and possesses the kind of frame that should translate to solid durability in the big leagues. He was also a two-sport athlete in high school, so the mileage on his arm isn't as intimidating as that of many high-power hurlers who end up needing Tommy John surgery.
Then there's the talent, which absolutely nobody debates. The option to select someone who draws comparisons to Randy Johnson and Chris Sale doesn't come around every year, and if Puk can master the control issues that pose the biggest obstacle to him dominating professional hitters, he could be a part of the Reds' big league staff as early as the end of 2017.
Put him together with Reed, Finnegan and Amir Garrett, and you've got a left-handed killing machine to turn loose on the rest of baseball for years to come.