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.
The changes to the swing are similar to what Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire have done, lowering his hands to shorten his swing.
“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.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.
Ahhhh the pessimistic and optimistic side of being a Pirates fan. Its why I try to remain a realist, and stay on an even keel. Not that long ago we didn’t have this kind of numerous talent, now the situation is seen as too much talent? It won’t take that long if the Pirates are winning that the picks won’t be as high for a period, then the cycle starts again, a perfect example is the Phillies system.
That is a fairly aggressive assignment, but one that I would have expected for a first round pick. Didn’t Meadows, McGuire also get similarly assigned in their second year – and they were both right of HS?
Tucker seems like a great kid and I certainly hope he succeeds. I am still concerned with his bat….I guess we will find out what he has this year. I hope he proves my concerns to be wrong.
The aggressive push is becoming the theme of 2015…at least for hitters.
I think it speaks to the type of hitters they’re targeting.
You draft a kid like Jacob Gatewood, you’re almost certain to have him spend a ton of time trying to learn to hit baseballs in the lowest levels. You draft kids that actually have some semblance of a hit tool and you can push them.
Admittedly I’m getting spoiled. How bout some Cole Tucker video? I gotta a feva and I need more cole-bell.
I keep saying this kid is the real deal. Watch out for mr. Tucker he is comin’ soon (2-3 yrs.)to a burgh near you.
Great content. Not sure I’ve ever heard of the “hands off” policy, good stuff. Also neat to see Perry Hill’s influence still going strong.
I love this push. Do I think Tucker will struggle? Absolutely. But I don’t see anything in his Rookie ball performance that makes you think he’ll be overmatched, or that he has some fatal flaw that must be worked out before moving any further. He didn’t strike out more than 30% of the time, or walk less than 5%. Seems like a challenge wouldn’t derail him to the point of having to cheat development just to get by.
I’m pretty sure I’ve reported both of those things plenty of times, but wanted to throw them in to this article as another reminder.
This seems like a no-risk move. If Tucker isn’t working out by mid-season, you can just send him down to Morgantown.
Is’nt morgantown in w. Virginia? Or are there two teams in w.v.?
I’m going to ask Tim this question every day just to see how long it takes until he bans me from the site… 😉
One is a short season(Morgantown) and the other is a full season(West Virginia)
Adding muscle should be good … let’s just hope it doesn’t slow him down.
I would expect an announcement that Jacoby Jones will move to 3B sometime in the near future. No way Jones stays at short with Tucker moving through the system.
Maybe next year. Tucker will be in A all year, Jones will be in A+, with a shot at a mid-season move to AA. No one moves off short until they prove they can’t play it anymore.
Yea, also who knows. Tucker could hit .200 this year with bad defense. Or a weakness in his game could warrant him to move to 2nd or 3rd. No reason to move Jones til Tucker catches him
Even if/when Tucker catches Jones, its still a little troubling. If you have 2 guys that can play short, moving one to third out of “need” reduces prospect value pretty significantly. It might look better on the depth chart, but it makes your minor league system “worth” a bit less.
Having too many prospects is a bad thing? ginbear you must have a short memory it wasn’t that long ago that we could not afford these types of guys. And before long if the Pirates continue to win these top picks will become harder to get while picking lower in the draft. Enjoy while you can.
Christ, no one understands what I am saying. Maybe I should just completely rewrite the damn thing. What I am saying is that you don’t just want to be moving prospects off premium positions willy-nilly because there is another prospect close behind – that’s the “still a little troubling” in my post (exceptions made for, say a Polanco moving to right field to get in the major league lineup.) This is a pretty standard viewpoint regarding prospects – I have no idea how I am “wrong” for it.
I would think if they both end up realistically being viable short stops the Pirates would keep them at separate levels and probably look to trade one (especially if one of them has made it to the majors). If Tucker does catch up with Jones it will likely be because Jones was struggling at a level anyway so a move to a different position won’t really hurt his value. Plus, didn’t the Pirates draft Jones as an outfielder? Could just move Jones back to centerfield which shouldn’t be too much of a value drop from short.
Yeah, the Chicago Cubs system is really hurting because of all those shortstop prospects…
I don’t understand your reply. I’m saying you should keep shortstop prospects at shortstop, rather than move them for “need” (emphasis on scare quotes.) I think you’d agree? LOL?
Moving a kid off short because he *can’t* play shortstop hurts prospect value. Moving a kid off short because you have a better shortstop absolutely does not. Just doesn’t work that way.
Javier Baez lost zero prospect value last summer when he moved to 2B because Addison Russell was acquired and Starlin Castro was the incumbent on the big squad.
Baez played 16 AAA games at second before his call up and 300 games at short before that. Jones has never played the position above A-ball. You wanna move a guy off short right before his callup to get him in the lineup, no problem. If you move a guy off short in A ball, he’s not a serious shortstop prospect.
You started this discussion with a general comment, and then when you realized you were wrong you changed it to a specific comment on Jacoby Jones.
I highly doubt any team sees Jones as a big league shortstop, period. Has nothing to do with Cole Tucker.
The same logic would apply to Tucker just as much as it would to Jones (and I don’t think much of Jones as a prospect until I see him perform in AA.) You don’t move prospects off premium positions willy-nilly simply because there are other prospects in the system playing the same position, particularly in A-ball. You point out a valid exception to that, ala Baez moving to second (or a Polanco to right field), to get the in the big league lineup.
That’s why I told the original commenter that moving one of the prospects in question off short simply because the other one is performing well is “still a little troubling.” You don’t move prospects off premium positions, if they can perform there, unless, as you accurately point out, there is need at the major league level. That’s pretty much standard practice for prospect development. If you think I am saying something different than that, you are simply wrong and I don’t appreciate the attitude.