BRADENTON – Cole Tucker played back-to-back games for the first time two weeks ago. Normally, that is the final step of a position player’s rehab process. However, the Pirates have kept Tucker back in Extended Spring Training (EST), having him play nine innings almost on a daily basis. The rehab process could finally be coming to an end, as Tucker told me yesterday that he anticipates leaving for West Virginia at the end of the week.
“I think this is my last week,” Tucker said. “Things change, but I’m planning on getting out of here this week. I’m excited. I feel really good about it.”
Tucker has been playing every day, except for Wednesday and Sunday. There are no games in EST on Sunday, and Wednesday is his scheduled off-day. He’s been doing this for two weeks, trying to get back in the routine of being an everyday player again.
“I kind of had a big operation done on my shoulder, so they’re doing the right thing and we’re taking it slow and just making sure that we tie everything together as we end this whole rehab process,” Tucker said yesterday.
While Tucker will start off in West Virginia, he will eventually reach Bradenton. Pirates’ Director of Minor League Operations Larry Broadway told me at the end of Spring Training that the goal was to get Tucker to Bradenton at some point this year, and Kevin Newman to Altoona at some point. Newman is hitting well in Bradenton, and working on his setup and first step on defense. I could see the pair moving up to their respective new levels in early June at the latest. Until then, Tucker will go to West Virginia to iron things out as the everyday starting shortstop.
“There’s obviously still stuff to iron out,” Tucker said. “I’m not even nine months out of surgery yet. I’m almost playing everyday. So there’s still stuff that I need to clean up, obviously. I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t.”
The fact that Tucker is ready to return the second week of May, and essentially returned to full-time action at the end of April, is nothing short of impressive. The original timeline for his return was 10-12 months, meaning he wasn’t expected back until the middle of June at the earliest, with the middle of August seeming more likely. He ended up being ready to return almost two months before his earliest estimate.
“I definitely had the goal of [returning early],” Tucker told me yesterday. “Last time we talked, I told you about me getting the notification on my phone, and I was like ‘There’s no way this is going to take 12 months. I’ll go berserk.’ I can’t miss a whole season, that’s just not me. Now it’s May 3rd, and I’m getting near the end. It’s exciting. You obviously set goals for yourself, and to put in the ground work every single day in the training room and on the field and in the weight room. To have it come to fruition, and see the benefits of your hard work coming together, it’s really awesome. Everyone here has been great in helping me get to that point.”
Tucker had a great finish to his season in West Virginia before his injury. He hit for a .797 OPS in his final two months, and this came while being one of the youngest players in the league. Even returning to West Virginia this year, he will be one of the youngest players in the league, and will be the second youngest player on his team, behind Ke’Bryan Hayes. The youngest player in the Florida State League at the start of the year was almost a year older than Tucker, so when he eventually moves up, he’ll be one of the youngest, or possibly the youngest guy in that league.
If Tucker can pick up where he left off last year, and carry his success up to Bradenton, that would be a great sign. We’ve already seen big results from first and second round picks in the last two drafts out of Kevin Newman, Mitch Keller, and Ke’Bryan Hayes. Having Tucker joining that group as a top performer will only further strengthen the next wave in the minor league system.