Under Neal Huntington, the Pittsburgh Pirates have never been afraid to make an unexpected move, even if that move is largely unpopular. They have been accused of moving prospects too slow, moving prospects too quickly, and even drafting the wrong guys because their public rankings don’t line up with the rankings that the Pirates have.
The latter instance occurred last year, when the Pittsburgh Pirates selected shortstop Cole Tucker in the first round with the 24th overall pick in the 2014 draft. Tucker was ranked by most publicly available rankings as a second or early third round talent. It looked like a huge reach for the Pirates, and was an unpopular decision, even on this site. After the draft, word came out that Tucker was actually ranked higher by people in the industry than he was in the national rankings. If the Pirates didn’t take him, he would have gone to Oakland with the next pick, and if Oakland didn’t take him, he would have been gone by the time they selected 39th overall.
How Tucker performs will largely reflect on the Pirates’ amateur scouting abilities. But the Pirates seem very high on his abilities, and that’s not just based on the draft selection. They are also sending him to the West Virginia Power this year, where he will play full-season A-ball.
That’s an aggressive push for a guy Tucker’s age. He’s 18 years old, and doesn’t turn 19 until the middle of the year. He will be one of the youngest players in the SAL this year. Last year his age would have ranked him as the sixth youngest player in that league on Opening Day.
Tucker is no stranger to being younger than the competition. He was the 9th youngest position player in the draft last year, and the 18th youngest player overall. He was also one of the youngest players on the GCL Pirates last year.
“I’m pumped,” Tucker said on his move to West Virginia. “That’s why I play baseball, because it’s so competitive and it’s so fun. I’ve got that passion to go out there and win and compete. I’m looking forward to that. We’re going to have a really good team. We’re going to have a solid club. And we’re going to go out there and try to win and get after it. The organization, from the top down, we’re going for it. We’re trying to win all the way up, and trying to win championships.”
This past off-season was a busy one to get Tucker to this point. As I reported in January, he had surgery to repair a torn UCL in his hand. That limited his off-season playing, and put him out for the Fall Instructional Leagues. He showed up to Pirate City in January after mini camp, then returned a few weeks before minor league Spring Training began. He worked on his swing and his defense this off-season, and also focused on his strength by adding ten pounds of muscle.
“We worked with that, lowering my hands and putting myself in a good position to shorten my swing, and make solid contact consistently,” Tucker said. “Put the ball in play. That’s my mindset with hitting. Battling, putting good swings on balls, and making solid contact. I feel like I’ve put myself in good position to start doing that.”
The defensive work will be important, especially for a shortstop in an organization that values defense from the shortstop position.
“I feel like my range is good,” Tucker said. “I’m really focusing on taking care of the ball, and funneling, and everything we work on as Pirates infielders. I feel really good at shortstop right now. I feel limber. I feel fast.”
The Pirates still use a technique adopted from Perry Hill, when he was the infield coach for the Pirates in 2009. That includes infielders fielding grounders from their knees first to focus on their hand work. The grounders are thrown to them by a teammate a short distance away. They eventually progress to taking grounders on their feet in the same manner. Finally, they get to the point where they are fielding live ground balls.
“Just really focusing on taking care of the baseball, because you can’t throw the guy out at first if you don’t catch it first,” Tucker said of the goal behind those drills. “That’s our number one priority is catching the ball first.”
The Pirates didn’t do much to develop Tucker last year, as the organization has a “hands off” policy when players first enter the system. Rather than creating clones, they wait to evaluate each player, and after a few months, they determine what adjustments a player needs to make. The 2014 season for Tucker was about showing what he did in high school. This year he will start “learning the Pirates philosophy,” as he put it.
“Last year we just got drafted, and we just got thrown out there, and they wanted us to really just work how we worked,” Tucker said. “They were pretty hands off. And this year, going through camp and being here early and everything, I’ve really been able to absorb a lot of information in a short period of time.”
The extra muscle that was added will definitely help Tucker stay fresh, especially since he will be playing a full season for the first time with his promotion to West Virginia.
“That’s why I did it,” Tucker said. “I guess we’ll figure that out as we go, but it is exciting. I feel good. I’ve never been stronger. Working with our strength staff has been awesome. The new facilities really helped. I feel like I’m in the best shape that I’ve ever been in. It’s exciting. I know it’s a long season. I know I’m young. But I know that I’m going to go out and play as hard as I can, and do anything to help the team win.”
Tucker joins a group of young players projected to go to West Virginia, and that list also includes Tito Polo, who I reported yesterday would be making the jump from the GCL. In the past, West Virginia has been a hot bed of talent, featuring breakout players like Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, and Tyler Glasnow. Right now it doesn’t look like the roster will have a breakout candidate on that same level. Then again, the Pirates are obviously very high on Tucker, and if they turn out to be correct, then perhaps Tucker could be the next breakout name to add to the list.