COLE TUCKER, SHORTSTOP
|Born: July 3, 1996
Drafted: 1st Round, 24th Overall, 2014
How Acquired: Draft
High School: Mountain Pointe (AZ) HS
WTM’s PLAYER PROFILE
|The Pirates took Tucker with their top pick in the 2014 draft. Tucker was not rated as anywhere close to a first round talent, ranking anywhere from the 60s to the 80s with the various draft mavens, raising the suspicion that the team was either drafting for need rather than taking the best player available, or looking to save money from their bonus pool to use on later picks. Tucker was climbing draft boards just before the draft, though, in part due to a strong performance in a major tournament. As a result, several teams after the Pirates were considering Tucker as a possible first round pick. Just the same, most observers seem to have seen him more as a second than a first round pick.
Tucker has good speed and very good athleticism. He’s also has excellent baserunning instincts. His offensive value comes mainly due to his projectability as a hitter, as scouts think he’ll add strength to his tall, lean frame. He’s a better hitter from the left side. Tucker has a good arm and hands, and some but not all scouts initially thought he’d stay at short. After several seasons in the minors, that was no longer in question and he’s considered a very good defender. Tucker committed to Arizona, but wasn’t considered likely to be difficult for the Pirates to sign. He was one of the younger players in the draft, as he didn’t turn 18 until July. He agreed to terms just a few days after the draft. His bonus was $1.8M, which was just $125,500 under slot.
Tucker had a solid debut as one of the younger players in the GCL, showing good patience and some power. He had a large platoon split, posting an OPS of .785 against RHPs and .580 against LHPs. He also showed some good speed. In the field, he committed 13 errors, but many of them came early — six in his first seven games at short — when he was playing with an arm injury. Tucker finished well, batting 278/343/400 in August.
The Pirates sent Tucker to West Virginia in low A to play shortstop in 2015. He was one of the youngest players in the South Atlantic League, not turning 19 the season’s second half. He started slowly, posting an OPS of .661 in April and .579 in May with very little power and not many walks. He started turning it around in June, with his OPS improving to .796 that month and .798 in July. He was a lot better from the right side than the left, with a .797 OPS hitting right-handed and a .656 mark hitting left-handed. He also did very well as a base stealer. Defensively, he looked awkward at times, but he had only 13 errors in 65 games at short, which isn’t a large total for that level. Baseball America rated him the league’s 15th best prospect and indicated that he had a good chance to stay at shortstop. Unfortunately, health became an issue. Tucker missed time during a couple stretches with minor injuries, then sat out all of August with shoulder problems. The Pirates stated that he wasn’t hurt, but late in the month he had labrum surgery.
Tucker’s labrum surgery was legitimate cause for concern. It’s not just very bad news for pitchers; it can be bad for hitters as well, especially hitters who need to throw well, like shortstops. Tucker, though, recovered much sooner than the expected 10-12 months. In fact, his injury may not have been the typical labrum injury, which results from repeated stress. His may have resulted from a collision on the bases. The Pirates assigned him to West Virginia in early May. He then moved up to Bradenton at the end of the month when Kevin Newman got hurt. Tucker played well in the field, showing no sign of trouble from the surgery. His hitting was another matter, as he showed very little power and struck out more often, once every four and a half ABs, as opposed to once every six the previous year. Much of the contact he made consisted of weak grounders. He struggled badly hitting right-handed, with a 164/263/194 line. Whether he could have been hampered by the after-effects of the surgery, I don’t know. He didn’t do well at stealing bases, in contrast to the previous season.
Tucker had some extreme ups and downs, but overall had a very encouraging season. He struggled through April in Bradenton, hitting 230/320/276. In May, though, he suddenly started hitting the ball with much more authority than he had at any time previously, batting 304/391/545. One possible concern was that the power outburst was accompanied by a sharp increase in his K rate, as he fanned once every four plate appearances. In early June Tucker went out with a broken finger, missing three weeks. Once he returned, he continued to hit very well until he was promoted to Altoona in late July. He struggled there initially, but after a month he got hot again, hitting 373/500/610 over the season’s last two weeks. Tucker was noticeably stronger, but didn’t lose any speed or quickness. In fact, he was sometimes spectacular on defense. He also starting stealing bases at a prodigious rate. His 36 steals led the Florida State League by four even though he played there only half the season. He has good, but hardly Billy Hamilton-level, speed; instead, he seems to have outstanding baserunning instincts. He had three hits in the first game of the Eastern League playoffs, but broke a bone in his hand in the second game. He was slated to go to the Arizona Fall League and it wasn’t clear initially whether the injury would jeopardize that assignment.
Tucker had a difficult first half at Altoona. A 2-for-40 drought starting in late April fueled a 245/308/324 line through the season’s first 80 games. After that he hit 281/370/407. Tucker even struggled early as a base stealer, getting caught in his first five attempts. He went 35-for-42 the rest of the way. He had trouble from the left side, which is unusual for switch hitters; he had an OPS of .663 batting right-handed and .787 batting left-handed. He played well at short, leaving little doubt that he can stay at the position.
Tucker had a big spring and got off to a fast start in AAA, hitting for surprising power. When Erik Gonzalez and Kevin Newman both got hurt in late April, the Pirates called Tucker up. Not surprisingly, he struggled at the plate. With Newman hitting well, the Pirates sent Tucker to Indianapolis. He didn’t hit well there the rest of the way, falling off to an OPS that was a little below the league average. The Pirates called Tucker up in September, but they didn’t play him a great deal and he missed the last week of the season with an injury. For some reason, he didn’t attempt a single steal during his time in the majors.
Tucker made the Pirates’ roster, but had an immensely frustrating season, for multiple reasons. One, obviously, was that he didn’t hit at all. He struggled to make contact, swinging and missing at an alarming rate as he chased a lot of pitches out of the strike zone and took too many in the strike zone. When he made contact, he seldom hit the ball hard. His average exit velocity was close to the lowest in MLB. The other frustrating factor was the Pirates’ inexplicable decision to play him in the outfield. He played just three innings at second and never played short. He started two-thirds of his games in center and the rest in right, and, maybe understandably, didn’t play well at either spot.
Going into spring training, the Pirates said Tucker, Gonzalez and Newman would all compete for the shortstop job. Tucker missed time with a hand injury, though, and didn’t hit when he played. Late in camp, the Pirates sent him to work on his hitting. It didn’t seem to help, as he was assigned to Indianapolis in May and batted just .214 over his first 14 games. The Pirates called him up late in the month due to injuries, sent him back two weeks later, then called him up again briefly in July. He showed a little more power from time to time, including a two-home run game in AAA, but through the end of August didn’t hit well. The Pirates called him up for good late in the month in what was widely thought to be a last chance. Around mid-September, some changes to his swing seemed to start working. Over his last 15 games he batted .308 and slugged .519. With Indianapolis, Tucker played mostly short, although he did spend a little time in the outfield. With the Pirates he started 14 games at short, eight at second and six in the outfield.
Tucker’s good finish may have staved off his departure from the 40-man roster, although September stats should always be taken with a grain of salt. With shortstop prospects like Oneil Cruz and Liover Peguero moving up, along with recently acquired infielders like Hoy Park, Tucupita Marcano and Diego Castillo in the upper minors, it makes little sense for the Pirates to use roster spots for both Tucker and Newman. The move with the highest upside would probably be to keep Tucker and play him every day at short early in the 2022 season. The Pirates, though, seem very reluctant to make a call on Tucker one way or the other. Notably, they made a lot of incomprehensible decisions in 2020 and their handling of Tucker was at the top of the list. The idea of him being an outfielder in the long term is ludicrous unless he starts hitting dramatically better. The 2020 experiment was a disaster, so of course they went back to playing him in the outfield some of the time in 2021. Tucker and Newman both had good springs in 2022, with Newman apparently keeping the shortstop job. Tucker appears slated for utility play, including, incomprehensibly, more time in the outfield.
UPDATE: The Pirates employed Tucker as a utility player and, foolishly, Derek Shelton played him more in right than anywhere else. It didn’t matter much in the end, as Tucker’s hitting collapsed from its already very low level. The Pirates optioned Tucker to AAA in mid-May and designated him for assignment at the end of the month to make room for Yu Chang.
|2022: Major league minimum
|Signing Bonus: $1,800,000
MiLB Debut: 2014
MLB Debut: 4/20/2019
MiLB FA Eligible: N/A
MLB FA Eligible: 2025
Rule 5 Eligible: N/A
Added to 40-Man: 11/20/2019
Options Remaining: 1 (USED: 2019, 2021)
MLB Service Time: 1.142
|June 5, 2014: Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1st round, 24th overall pick; signed on June 12.
November 20, 2019: Contract purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
May 30, 2022: Designated for assignment by the Pittsburgh Pirates.