Prior to Sunday’s game, Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington talked to the local media, including our own Matt Gajtka, who provided the quotes below. Among topics discussed was the progress of prospects in Altoona. In particular, Huntington focused in on the early season struggles of shortstop Cole Tucker and the outstanding performance so far from outfielder Jason Martin.
We start with the 22-year-old Jason Martin, who is batting .348/.408/.585 through his first 36 games this season. He ranks seventh in the Eastern League in OPS and is easily the best hitter so far this year for the Curve. Huntington had a lot to say about his success so far and what he has provided to Altoona, plus how he could help the other young players on the team by example.
“Jason’s not only hitting but he’s hitting for power and he’s doing some things on the bases,” Huntington said. “He’s doing a nice job defensively. He’s a multi-tool threat for them on the bases and in the batter’s box. He just continues to give professional at-bat after professional at-bat. Looking for some of those young hitters to take a peak over their shoulder and see what he’s doing. We’ve got some young guys pressing right now and trying to do more than they’re capable of. Trying to get seven hits in one plate appearance to get that batting average back at a respectable level. Jason’s just going out and playing baseball. I would imagine opposing pitchers are recognizing that he’s not he only guy doing damage and not giving him a ton of pitches to hit. He’s continuing to do a nice job.”
That long quote led to a follow up question about why the Pirates targeted Martin in the Gerrit Cole trade this off-season. He was far from the main piece returning in the 4-for-1 deal, but he could end up providing the Pirates with a lot of value if these early results remain true. Huntington addressed why the Pirates went after him based on what their scouts saw in Martin over the years.
“He’s a guy who can do a lot of things on the baseball field. He’s got speed. He can hit. He can barrel the baseball with consistency. He’s got those traits. A good athlete. A good young man. A good worker that has growth and development and time to go. But good traits, a good athlete who can defend. Interesting young player. Can run, has power. He’ll raw a walk and hit a ball into the seats. Athletic, intelligent, driven young man.”
On the flip side, you have the early season struggles from Cole Tucker. He has looked fine defensively and that’s a big part of his game and his value. The offense has been very bad. He hasn’t been getting on base at all since mid-April, which has led to a .204/.265/.289 slash line and just three steals in eight attempts from someone who stole 47 bases last year. Coming from someone who is expected to hit at the top of the lineup, those numbers are unacceptable.
Huntington addressed the early season slump from Tucker, which is now closing in on 1/3 of the season. Unlike the long answers you got from the Martin questions, there wasn’t as much to say for Tucker’s issues. Huntington did mention that the team has struggled as a group and Tucker and others are young for the level, but for the 21-year-old shortstop specifically, it sounded like an approach issue at the plate.
“Cole Tucker is gaining man strength, but he’s in one of those dreaded slumps,” Huntington said. “He’s trying to jump a fastball because he doesn’t want to get caught in breaking-ball counts.”
Tucker will eventually come out of his slump and he’s been known to go on streaks in the past. While this current slump has gone on longer than you would expect based on his pro track record, there isn’t an immediate cause for concern. Help for Tucker might come from his own dugout. Huntington talked about putting Altoona manager Michael Ryan with this group of players on purpose, to help them through situations just like this current one with Tucker.
“Mike continued to show that he did a good job with young players and helping them through slumps, helping them handle success. Helping them grow every day to get better. Helping them stay where their feet are and not get too ahead of themselves. The closer guys get to the big leagues, they stop thinking about where their feet are and they start thinking about the next step. They’re thinking about who’s ahead of them instead of their development. Mike does a nice job keeping guys focused and present.”
So you have a manager who is known to bring out the best in players and a top prospect who needs that kind of mentoring right now. It worked out well when they were together in Bradenton last year.
As I said, Tucker is too good of a player to continue this slump. Just like Martin isn’t going to continue to put up a .993 OPS, and if he somehow does, he’s not going to be in Altoona very long. You have two prospect headed in completely different directions at this point, but you should expect them to be closer together by the end of the season.