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Phillies must decide whether big lefty A.J. Puk is worth drafting No. 1

Fifth in a series of profiles of potential Phillies draft picks. HOOVER, Ala. - A.J. Puk absorbed the charged atmosphere at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium last week with each completed inning. He yelled and chewed the top of his Florida jersey when he hung a slider in the fifth inning of an SEC tournament game. He pumped his fist twice with a big strikeout to end the sixth. He pounded his chest after a seventh-inning groundout.

Fifth in a series of profiles of potential Phillies draft picks.

Puk, a 6-foot-7 pitcher with a prized left arm, shuffled each time past his Gators teammates. He disappeared into the dugout tunnel, which doubled as a sanctuary, until the spotlight shone again.

"There was a little chair down there and a fan," Puk, 21, said. "I just chilled."

Dozens of scouts, including five from the Phillies who were seated in the front row behind home plate, watched. The 7 1/3-inning start against Louisiana State, telecast on national TV, was the longest of Puk's touted junior season. (The Gators ended up losing in 14 innings.)

It is not hard to see how the rangy Iowan captivates, how projections years ago recognized him as a potential No. 1 pick. He is tall. He is lefthanded. He throws 97 mph.

"He's just your prototypical scout's dream," Alabama coach Mitch Gaspard said. "The ball just explodes on you. The stuff is just electric."

"I completely see what the major-league people see with A.J. Puk," Tennessee coach Dave Serrano said. "It's all there. It's just a matter of it coming out. Could he be a No. 1 guy? Absolutely. And you can't let those guys pass by when you get a chance at them."

That is what frustrates major-league teams. Puk should have emerged as a the clear pick next week for the Phillies. He should be more dominant; he posted back-to-back starts of six or more innings just once this season. Florida, one of the top teams in the country, won just six of Puk's 14 starts. He battled back spasms and stomach ailments. He was prone to control meltdowns. Is he a starter or a reliever?

That prevailing narrative, Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said, is unfair.

"Everybody is trying to pick him apart," O'Sullivan said. "We're still talking about a kid from Iowa. I see the improvement that he's made over the last three years. Everybody is like, 'Well, why is he up and down?' Well, he's a 6-foot-7 lefty who doesn't have a whole lot of innings under his belt. He's gotten a lot better.

"If he makes the same progress over the next three years that he made in the three years here, you have a No. 1 starter. It's just that simple."

Rejected football family

Puk's father, David, an ophthalmologist in Cedar Rapids, rushed for seven touchdowns as a fullback at the University of Minnesota in the '80s. Three of Puk's uncles played Division I football at Iowa and Stanford. As a sophomore, Puk started at quarterback for Washington High School.

So, when Puk quit football in August 2011, Tony Lombardi worried. Lombardi coached both football and baseball at Washington. Puk was 16, about 6 feet tall. Lombardi knew he'd grow, but he did not think Puk would reach the prototypical power pitcher's height.

Lombardi now laughs at his assessment.

"No sooner did he make that decision," Lombardi said, "it was almost like God put his hand on him and said, 'OK, you're a baseball player.' He shot up like a weed. He became this incredible specimen."

Puk latched onto Perfect Game, a company based in Cedar Rapids that operates travel teams and holds showcases across the country. Lombardi joked that Puk had a reserved cot at Perfect Game. His fastball started to reach the low 90s. Scouts began to project, and Puk collected invitations to elite travel teams.

It did not take much to convince.

"A.J.'s love," Lombardi said, "always was baseball."

Lombardi will never forget what happened next. A few days after word leaked that Puk had quit football, he went  to a practice. Puk asked Lombardi if he could address the team. For 10 minutes, Puk explained his decision.

"He basically apologized, which of course he didn't have to do," Lombardi said. "He was very forthright. Very sincere.

"That will always resonate in my memory."

Questions about maturity

On a Sunday night two Aprils ago, Puk and a Florida teammate trespassed at a construction site next to the school's chemistry lab building. They climbed a crane. Puk was charged with a felony, later reduced to a misdemeanor, and completed community service. "I'm going to be more focused," Puk told the Des Moines Register last year.

Questions about Puk's maturity have not subsided. They are natural when a golden arm struggles.

"I would say if I'm coaching A.J. Puk, I would be a little frustrated," said Serrano, the Tennessee coach. "His team has won 40-plus games and he's only won two of them. If I'm an organization, there's some concern. You see the potential is there. I think it's a matter of maybe some maturity and him growing up. It's all there. The package is all there. You can't prototype a lefthanded pitcher more than you can him.

"From the other side of the diamond, I really think it's a maturity thing."

Lombardi cringes at that criticism. He says it is "symptomatic of the system." No Iowan has ever been picked first overall. In Iowa, high-school baseball is played during the summer, and there are fewer opportunities. Puk eschewed the Iowa baseball summers for spots on elite travel teams, which have large pitching staffs of all-star prep players. The competition for innings is fierce.

"Where do you expect them to develop their mental toughness?" Lombardi said. "You don't ever leave them in there long enough to develop that. Once he gets into a minor-league situation, they're going to do that. My only question is, how long will that take to develop itself?"

Puk posted a 2.88 ERA in 14 starts this season. He struck out 90 and walked 31 in 65 2/3 innings. College teams use their best pitcher on Friday nights, and Florida stuck with Logan Shore, a junior righthander who will be drafted. Puk pitched Saturdays.

"He has everything from a physical standpoint," a scout said. "But nothing is consistent."

The game is littered with dominant arms who did not master college. Everyone has an opinion. Is he a starter or a reliever? Can he handle the pressure of being the No. 1 pick? There will be nowhere to hide, and the idea of that excites Puk.

"I've always liked throwing in front of a big stage," he said. "It's more fun when there are a lot of fans."

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