The Pittsburgh Pirates made an aggressive move at the start of the season when they sent Cole Tucker to West Virginia. The 2014 first round pick is one of the youngest players in the league, turning 19 in exactly one month. The Pirates drafted him out of high school last year, when he was one of the youngest players in the draft. Despite the age, they felt that the maturity was there for him to handle such an aggressive jump. In fact, despite the age, West Virginia manager Brian Esposito feels that Tucker is one of the leaders of the club.
“He’s the youngest guy on our team, and he’s probably one of the guys that leads this ball club,” Esposito said. “Which is tremendous for an 18-year-old kid to go out there and be one of the leaders on this team.”
The Power have a very college-heavy team, with fellow 2014 picks like Connor Joe, Jordan Luplow, Taylor Gushue, Michael Suchy, Chase Simpson, Tyler Filliben, and Jerrick Suiter on the team. That college presence has helped Tucker adjusting to adult life. He’s currently living with Gushue, Luplow, and Joe, who are helping him adjust to life away from home.
“It’s weird looking at the roster and seeing guys who are born in 1989, and people that are older than my older brother,” Tucker said in a comment that made this author feel very old, considering that 1989 was the year my younger brother was born. “I feel like I belong and I feel like I can handle it so far. I feel like I’m doing a good job.”
Aside from the on-field challenges of being one of the youngest players in the South Atlantic League, Tucker has to adjust to new off-field experiences like having your own place, paying rent, and having a job to go to each day. He had some of that last year after the draft, but this is a bit different.
“Last year, being in the GCL, you’re at Pirate City, so it’s like having mom and dad watch you everyday,” Tucker said. “Being here, away at an affiliate is really different. You’ve got to be at the ballpark everyday. It’s not just you roll out of bed, and go to the locker room five seconds away like it is at Pirate City. You’ve got to be a full-on adult here.”
On the field, Tucker has struggled offensively, putting up a .262/.286/.305 line in 164 at-bats. That probably shouldn’t be a big surprise for a guy one year removed from high school, playing in a college-heavy league. The same thing happened last year with Reese McGuire, who had a .262/.307/.334 line in West Virginia. Despite the struggles, Tucker is showing some maturity by separating his offense and defense, and not letting one side of the game impact the other.
“Regardless of his struggles at the plate, regardless of his struggles defensively, one will never carry over to the other,” Esposito said. “He has shown a tremendous amount of maturity being able to separate his offense and his defense. He won’t take his at-bats to defense, and he won’t take his defense to the plate. He separates them well. He goes out and he competes.”
This is a characteristic that is hard to master. Some players in the upper levels of the minors, who have been in pro ball for years, still struggle with this. It’s this characteristic that led to the Pirates giving Tucker this aggressive push, knowing that he’d be able to handle the jump from a mental standpoint.
Defensively, Tucker has looked good, showing the range needed to stick at shortstop, along with a strong enough arm to make the throw, despite a unique throwing motion where he almost tucks his arm in a bit from a high sidearm delivery. He’s very athletic, and has a chance to stick at the position, even if he adds some muscle to his frame in the future.
There is also the physical aspect that needs to be considered. A high school season is much shorter than a college season. Tucker started in Spring Training at the end of February, and has been going ever since, working out every day and getting the majority of the playing time at shortstop. That will continue through the end of the season in early September, and possibly a bit longer if West Virginia makes the playoffs. After that, there is the Fall Instructional League, meaning Tucker will have played baseball for about eight months straight — a massive jump from his time in high school.
“I know it’s a long year ahead,” Tucker said, “but I feel I’m really taking care of myself working with the trainer and the strength staff to do what I need to do to go out and play nine innings every night.”
As for the offensive struggles, he has been putting in work with West Virginia Hitting Coach Keoni De Renne, along with Minor League Hitting Coordinator Larry Sutton on his timing and rhythm at the plate to make sure that his swing is on time.
“[We’re] getting him to the right position so that he has more success with his timing and rhythm,” De Renne said. “Once all that happens, it’s going to be a lot easier for him to be that much more consistent.”
But Esposito welcomes the struggles for now, to continue pushing Tucker.
“His work ethic is going to allow him to work out of any struggles he may or may not have,” Esposito said. “And that’s what we want. I want him to struggle. I want him to face some adversity, some challenges, that’s going to push him when he’s here.”