The 6-foot-7 left-handed fireballing starter highlights a contingent of 26 players to receive non-roster invites to the Oakland Athletics Spring Training, the team announced on Thursday.
Puk, 21, went 16-9 in 52 appearances striking out 245 batters in 190-1/3 innings pitched in three seasons with the Florida Gators. In 10 2016 starts with Class-A Vermont, he went 0-4 despite a respectable 3.03 ERA. He finds himself in a similar position to that of fellow lefty hurler Sean Manaea, who was a non-roster invite a season ago.
Joining Puk, who is the franchise’s No. 2 prospect according to MLB.com, among the group of non-roster invitees will be No. 4 prospect Matt Chapman, No. 18 Daniel Gossett and No. 23 Sean Murphy. Also, veterans Felix Doubront, who spent all of the 2016 season on the disabled list recovering from Tommy John surgery, and Ryan Lavarnway, who signed a minor league contract with the team in November, will get a try-out.
In total, 14 pitchers were recipients of invites.
The six starters — Michael Brady, Doubront, Heath Fillmyer, Gossett, Puk, and Cesar Valdez — will be competing for what is prior to any further free agency or trade moves: one potential roster spot. A spot they would have to wrestle away from Chris Bassitt who, like Doubront, spent the entirety of the past season on mend after Tommy John.
The favorite of the group may be Valdez, who signed a minor league deal in November. In 30 games (18 starts) with Triple-A Fresno (Houston Astros), Valdez posted a 12-1 record with a 3.12 ERA. He recorded 114 strikeouts in 138-1/3 innings while walking just 13.
The corps of relievers — Ryan Brasier, Simon Castro, Trey Cochran-Gil, Tucker Healy, Aaron Kurcz, Chris Smith, Josh Smith and Tyler Sturdevant — will not have the same opportunity, as the Oakland bullpen, barring injury, is set for Opening Day. Instead, the eight bullpenners will use the camp to jostle for positioning and reputation. Top performers of the group will get a chance at some point during the 2017 campaign.
Like the relievers, a trio of catchers — Lavarnway, Matt McBride and Murphy — will be competing for the top minor league depth spot given the A’s host of three capable backstops currently on the big league squad.
Among the five infielders — Chapman, Jermaine Curtis, Richie Martin, Josh Rodriguez and Max Schrock — Curtis, a 29-year-old third baseman, appears the top contender for a roster nod. In 89 games with Triple-A Louisville (Cincinnati Reds), Curtis .291 with nine home runs and 50 RBIs. Adding 42 walks, he finished the season with a .404 on-base percentage.
Schrock, whom Oakland acquires from the Nationals in a trade that sent Marc Rzepczynski Washington, will have a chance to firmly plant his name on his new team’s radar after leading all of minor league baseball with 177 hits in 2016. Having achieved the total, along with a .331 batting average, between Single-A and Double-A, the second baseman will likely need further seasoning before he is ready for the show.
In what is by far the greatest need for the A’s, the team will likely look to available major league talent to fill the vacant outfielder position, rather than any of the four non-roster invites — Jaff Decker, Andrew Lambo, Chris Parmelee and Kenny Wilson.
Wilson, though, will be the man to watch after stealing 30 bases in 125 games combined between Double-A Jacksonville and Triple-A New Orleans (Miami Marlins) a season ago. Oakland finished 2016 with the second-worst team stolen base total in the American League (50), highlighting a need for a speed threat like Wilson.
With the Winter Meetings still a week away, and the long offseason far from over, the green and gold will certainly see a shift in its 25-man roster. As they address their needs over the coming months, March will be a time for the 26 minor leaguers to prove their value to the franchise in hopes of solidifying a 2017 major league call-up.