Off to a hot start this spring, shortstop Cole Tucker looks primed to put the Pittsburgh Pirates in a position to face a tough decision at the end of the month
In the 1st round of the 2014 MLB Draft the Pittsburgh Pirates selected shortstop Cole Tucker. From the get go Tucker was touted as a Gold Glove caliber defender at shortstop whose offense would need to develop.
The switch hitting Tucker would quickly start to rise through the Pirates minor league system. Flashing a plus glove, plus speed, and a steadily improving bat, he found himself making his MLB debut in 2019.
Tucker’s 2019 debut season was an up and down one. After Erik Gonzalez broke his collarbone in late April, Tucker was named the team’s starting shortstop. In his first career start he hit a game winning 2-run home run in a rain shortened victory over the San Francisco Giants. However, after struggling offensively, he would lose his job to Kevin Newman before being optioned back to Triple-A.
Overall, Tucker slashed .211/.266/.361 with a 61 wRC+, .150 ISO, 25.2% strikeout rate, 6.3% walk rate, 10.2% extra base hit rate, and a 0.0 fWAR in 159 plate appearances across 56 games. While these overall numbers are not good, Tucker did flash good power potential to go with plus defense at shortstop.
Furthermore, Tucker finished the season strong. Across his final 55 MLB plate appearances of the season Tucker slashed .327/.400/.571 with a .245 ISO and a 151 wRC+. His walk rate was 9.1%, strikeout rate was 18.2%, and his extra base hit rate was 18.4%.
When new general manager Ben Cherington arrived in Pittsburgh in November it did not take him and his scouting department to quickly begin to think highly of Tucker. Making room for Tucker is a big reason why Cherington was open to trading second baseman Adam Frazier throughout the off-season. A lot of folks within the Pirate front office see Tucker as a future star.
With Frazier still a Pirate, and Newman near impossible to bench following his 110 wRC+ and 2.5 fWAR rookie season in 2019, Tucker entered Spring Training in an odd spot. While he could make the roster as a bench player, it would make more sense to get him at bats every day at the Triple-A level. However, Tucker is making this decision difficult on the Pirates.
After going 2-for-3 with a double in Sunday afternoon’s victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, Tucker is now slashing .357/.438/.429 in 16 Grapefruit League plate appearances with a double, a stolen base, and no strikeouts. A small sample size? Yes. But exactly what the Pirates wanted to see from Tucker and a continuation of his strong finish to 2019? Also a yes.
In addition to his offense, Tucker has been strong with the glove this spring. That, however, comes as no surprise. Regardless of his offense, he remains the best defensive shortstop in the Pirate system. Hell, he’d be one of the best defensive shortstops in all of baseball.
If Tucker continues to hit the ball well this spring, the Pirates will be forced with a decision. Do they attempt to get their likely shortstop of the future every day at bats at the MLB level? If so, how?
Do they slide Newman over to second base, the team’s best infield defense after all would be Tucker at shortstop and Newman at second base, and move Frazier back to a super utility role? Could they get real radical and start Tucker over Newman at shortstop? In all honesty, that would not be a total shocker. While, yes, Newman hit over .300 with a 110 wRC+ last season, but his exit velocity and hard contact rate were both in the bottom 5% of the Majors. Without improvement in these areas, Newman’s 2019 season will prove to be nothing more than a fluke.
Tucker is in a position where what is best for him is to be playing every day at the MLB level to say what he can do as an every day MLB hitter. If he continues to hit the ball well this spring it will only further solidify that this is where he is at in his career.
Regardless of how things shake out, one thing that is for certain, is that if Tucker continues to hit the ball the way he has through the first 10 games of the Grapefruit League season the Pirates will be facing a tough decision.