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A.J. Puk eases into spring

MESA, Ariz. — This time last year, A.J. Puk was riding a slow train back from injury. Tommy John requires it, at least. And by February 2019 he was just few months shy of a year removed from surgery.

“I definitely try not to think about that, but I just look at it every day and try to earn my health and do what I have to do to feel good,” Puk said after the game.

Considering his grueling progression to health, Puk’s first few starts in the Cactus League have looked like a breeze. He hurled an easy 96 mph fastball out of the gate against the Chicago Cubs on Saturday and made Kris Bryant look silly on a slider. He was hurling an easy 95 again in his start against the Colorado Rockies on Thursday.

Puk tacked on another inning this time around, though. In two innings, he tallied one strikeout and gave up two hits in the A’s 3-2 win on Thursday at Hohokam Stadium.

“He got a lineup to get your attention, too,” manager Bob Melvin said. “They brought a lot of their big boys here. You want him to have that kind of look, especially early in the spring. And he looked good again with all those pitches.”

The “big boys” included a lineup featuring Trevor Story and Nolan Arenado. Puk navigated his way through seven batters in tidy fashion. He was so efficient that he threw some extra pitches in the bullpen after his departure.

Burch Smith makes his Cactus League debut

The name ‘Burch Smith’ should be a trivia game favorite filed under the list of rare San Francisco Giants – Oakland Athletics big league transactions made in baseball history.

Smith is a 29-year-old right-handed pitcher who made his debut in 2013 with the San Diego Padres. He had Tommy John surgery in 2015 and took a five year gap under the minor league umbrella before popping back up in the big leagues with the Kansas City Royals in 2018. The Giants designated Smith for assignment on February 10th, and the A’s traded for him in exchange for cash considerations on February 15th.

He’s been in the A’s clubhouse a few weeks and made his Cactus League debut on Thursday, throwing one clean inning with one strikeout.

A few minutes after Smith was traded to the A’s, work spread throughout the A’s camp that Smith had a top notch sin rate — Statcast ranks his fastball spin rate as above average. That was displayed in his A’s spring debut.

“High spin rate guy, Emo was right,” Melvin said. “He got some swings and misses at the top of the zone. It’s not 96 or 97 mph but it plays up a bit, looks like he has a good breaking ball. Have to see more, but good for a first look.”

Smith had some ugly numbers heading into camp. A 6.57 ERA and a 1.43 K/BB ratio AND 1.88 WHIP in 2019 with the Milwaukee Brewers and Giants last season. In 2018, his 8.3 barrel percentage was ranked in the bottom 8 percent of the league and his .373 weighted on base percentage ranked among the bottom four percent. He’s clearly struggled with his command.

But stats don’t tell the whole story. What the A’s might see — other than spin rate — is that Smith has a few starts and long relief appearances under his belt. Smith has started 13 games in his career — seven before Tommy John with the Padres and six with the Kansas City Royals after it.

Given the injury-riddled history this rotation carries, the A’s might value even more any arm that can carry a heavier innings load. Chris Bassitt is the proven, go-to swingman and long reliever, fully capable of coming out of the bullpen or picking up a spot start — or more.

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