A.J. Puk’s timeline for return is unknown; who will replace him in the rotation?

The A’s looked to be the lucky ones, spared a significant injury that could dent a team looking to make a postseason run again.

Monday, that precarious streak of luck came to an end with news that prized left-hander A.J. Puk re-strained his left shoulder — the same injury Puk incurred early March in Arizona — and was placed on the 10-day injured list.

Shoulder flare ups are common among pitchers recovering from Tommy John — or so, that’s what many TJ survivors have told Puk.

“It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating for him, too,” manager Bob Melvin said. “We thought this period of time off would benefit him. It did up until a point.”

Puk has no timetable for return, and any update will come following his meeting with Dr. Neal ElAttrache in Los Angeles. But, the A’s are concerned.

“The fact we have to put him on the (IL) right away, there’s a level of concern,” Melvin said.

The A’s have a line of pitchers who can squeeze into the lineup, while also leaving plenty of arms to execute any long relief that might be required in these weighted games. Though the A’s won’t be piggybacking anytime soon, down the line some teams — A’s included — could find an advantage to limiting a starter’s outing to keep them from seeing a lineup a third time through. There’s also an advantage to managing the starters’ pitch count and prevent injury during this 60-game sprint.

Don’t expect Jesús Luzardo to be rushed into his rotation spot. The 22-year-old left-hander threw to Ramón Laureano — who missed the first exhibition game with a tight calf — in live batting practice on Monday. The A’s will still stretch Luzardo out to three-inning outings out of the bullpen before he will claim his rightful spot in the rotation.

Daniel Mengden will replace Puk, fifth spot in the rotation. The right-handed pitcher threw four innings his last time out in a simulated game and didn’t give up any runs.

Mengden is a starter by trade, and it’s no secret he wants to be in a rotation where his career with the A’s began in 2016. If the pitching staff were at full strength, Mengden was expected to take on a swingman/long relief role Chris Bassitt (who is currently slotted into the rotation) embraced last season.

“Daniel will have to go through that, and you have to accept that if you want to excel,” Melvin said last week.

Coming off a clean-up elbow surgery this winter, Mengden condensed his delivery. His signature elongated wind-up is condensed. His arm stroke is a little shorter. His toe taps and triple-fist pumps have been nearly slashed from the motion. Mengden is throwing his fastball more, and he brought back his Rollie Fingers-esque mustache, too.

“He’s looked really good,” Melvin said.

With the two swingmen currently called up to the rotation, the A’s still have depth to deploy innings eaters in relief — Luzardo perhaps one of the sneakiest weapons in high-leverage situations to start.

Burch Smith as an arm best suited to be stretched out to go three innings.

The tight spin on Smith’s fastball caught pitching coach Scott Emerson’s eye. A relatively high spin rate, low arm slot, and extended release point — his seven-foot extension is slightly above league average of six feet — gives Smith, 30, a devastating rising fastball.

“I’ve always been able to pitch up there,” Smith said. He’d learned how to hone it in his time in the Tampa Bay Rays system back in 2017. “They taught me how to do that, and since then I’ve taken that with me.”

That elevated fastball has Smith on a clear path toward the Opening Day 30-man roster. In a simulated game outing last week, Smith struck out three of the four batters he faced. In an outing this week, he struck out six of the eight batters he faced, manager Bob Melvin said.

Smith’s career began as a starter with the San Diego Padres in 2013. Tommy John surgery in 2015 kept him out of the game until the Kansas City Royals started him for six games in 2018. Smith hasn’t been able to stick on a team — his high ERAs might indicate why — but his 9.9 SO/9 rate accumulated in the Milwaukee Brewers system in 2019 tells us why he could stick with the A’s.

It was there that Smith started making more appearances out of the bullpen.

He started simplifying his approach, too.

“I’m not trying to pitch to the edge of the plate or dissect the edge of the quarters,” he said on a call with reporters. “I’m just trying to work in halves.”

But, his experience as a starter eases the mental and physical leap to the three-plus inning outings the A’s might ask him to make.

Like Smith, Yusmeiro Petit has the starter experience that eases him into a possible long-relief role — really, he has experience playing every and any role out of the bullpen. It’s why he’s a coaching staff favorite.

You might not expect a pitcher who throws an 89 mph fastball to be a Statcast darling, but Petit’s analytics jump off the page: a 3.2 walk rate (top 1% of the league), a .240 weighted on-base average (top 3%), a 3.09 ERA and the most appearances from a pitcher in the league (80).

Petit is going into his 13th big league season with help from a deceptive delivery that he’s still working to improve. During the hiatus, Petit went back to his home in Miami and pored over film; he saw that he was tipping his fastball a bit, so he’s running his hands a little more behind his back.

It’s the little things that add longevity. Petit is a mentor for a majority if the pitchers — and hitters — on this team. His versatility and proven stamina could make him especially valuable in a short season.

J.B. Wendelken is another pitcher that can throw multiple innings. Used primarily to soak up garbage time last season, the right-handed pitcher impressed with a 95 mph fastball, curveball and changeup.

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Author: Shayna Rubin

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