Any pitcher will tell you there's never a good time to undergo Tommy John surgery. But there may be times that are more frustrating than others. A.J. Puk was on the brink of the Majors when he discovered he needed the operation.
"I was [angry]," he lamented. "I was on the edge of making the team. ... I thought I had a chance to make the rotation."
In the midst of Spring Training in 2018, the young left-hander who was then Oakland's top prospect believed he had a chance to make the A's as a starter, even though he had yet to pitch above Double-A ball. Just 18 months after he was selected as Oakland's first-round 2016 Draft pick, Puk was putting his money where his thoughts were, notching 10 consecutive scoreless innings in Cactus League action. However, in what would end up his final start of the spring, he surrendered four runs in 2 2/3 innings and concerns arose regarding noticeably diminished velocity.
Two weeks later, Puk underwent Tommy John surgery in Los Angeles.
It was a devastating blow to the A's organization, and it's a situation they're becoming much more familiar with than they'd like. Top rotation candidate Jharel Cotton went down with the same injury two weeks before Puk. Former Yankees top prospect James Kaprielian, acquired when Oakland dealt Sonny Gray in 2017, had Tommy John surgery before being traded. Prized starter Sean Manaea had his career-best season cut short last year and underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery in September. Right-handed prospect Grant Holmes missed almost all of last year with a shoulder injury. And in Spring Training this season, top prospect Jesus Luzardo -- who, like Puk last year, was expected to make the A's rotation -- was shut down in March with a shoulder strain, then went down with a Grade 2 lat strain in his rehab assignment last week.
The good news, however, is that Puk -- Oakland's No. 2 prospect and MLB.com's No. 35 overall -- is pitching for Double-A Midland, inching closer to making his big league debut a mere 14 months after going under the knife.
"The big thing was taking it one day at a time. It's a long rehab and you're away from all of your teammates," Puk said. "I prepared as much as I could each day to make sure I felt good for the next day. You start to break down your mechanics of your pitching and try to change things up. You look at the reasons why you got hurt and start to make some adjustments."
Puk rehabbed in the Cal League, where he had a 3.69 ERA in 2017. (Meghan Camino)
Those factors helped propel Puk back into the spotlight around the Bay Area as the A's entered the All-Star break nine games over .500 and a game and a half back from the second Wild Card spot. Looking to make a playoff push for the second consecutive season, Oakland might call upon the 24-year-old southpaw, especially after news broke that Frankie Montas will miss the rest of the year with a PED suspension.
But Puk, the the No. 4 southpaw in the Minors, is trying his best to not let his mind wander to what could be. He is pitching competitively again, but that doesn't mean his recovery is over.
"The motivation is always in me," he said. "Everyone wants to play in the Major Leagues and have a career there, so that's what you think about every day.
"Right now, I'm worrying about each day, about my recovery and being able to go out on the mound and execute my pitches. That's the biggest thing for me right now, is getting used to that competition. Once that happens and everything comes together, we'll see. There's half a season left, so we'll see what happens."
Beginning on June 11, Puk made three appearances for Class A Advanced Stockton in his return to the diamond, with each of his California League outings lasting two innings. He allowed five runs -- four earned -- over those outings, fanning nine and walking four. On June 24, Puk was promoted to RockHounds, and he entered the weekend having pitched 5 1/3 innings across four Texas League games. In a two-inning appearance on Thursday, he struck four and hit 98 mph on the gun. Over his first seven games since surgery, he had a 5.56 ERA through 11 1/3 frames, fanning 17 in that span.
He isn't focused on how his appearances look on paper, though. At this stage in his return, Puk wants to make sure the work he's already put in doesn't come unraveled.
Video: RockHounds' Puk goes 98 for K
"I'm still getting used to that competition, to throwing in front of fans," he said. "I'm focusing on making sure I still feel good after each outing. Fourteen months out is still pretty early in the recovery still, so I'm focusing on throwing my pitches in the zone and getting some outs."
2019 MiLB include
Just as Puk wasn't alone among A's hurlers dealing with an injury, he's not alone in coming back. Both Cotton and Manaea have begun their rehab assignments, although Cotton is also recovering from a June hamstring surgery and Manaea's return was delayed a few weeks with some oblique soreness. Kaprielian is building up his inning counts in the California League, and there is no timetable for Luzardo's return to action. Holmes opened this year with Midland. Provided there are no more setbacks, Manaea could be back to the rotation by September. When Cotton returns, he will most likely be used in a bullpen or long relief role.
That may be the route the A's go with Puk. At 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds, Puk is no easy foe to stare down late in a ballgame. He's had experience in the relief role in college at the University of Florida and has worked out of the 'pen in each of his Texas League turns this year as well.
Whatever his role is, whether he debuts this season or next, Puk is happy to be back on the mound and competing with his teammates.
"What I've enjoyed most is being back with the guys and coming to the ballpark every day," he said. "And definitely continuing to get better."