Pittsburgh Pirates: Making an Argument to Play Cole Tucker in Center Field

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - AUGUST 26: Cole Tucker #3 of the Pittsburgh Pirates makes a catch against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on August 26, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - AUGUST 26: Cole Tucker #3 of the Pittsburgh Pirates makes a catch against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on August 26, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

Recently, Cole Tucker has been roaming center field for the Pittsburgh Pirates. While outfield is not Tucker’s natural position – there is a pretty good case that can be made for the transition.

Cole Tucker is an electric player that certainly has a future with the Pittsburgh Pirates. All throughout his minor league career, Tucker was an above average defender at shortstop. In 2019, FanGraphs (a highly touted prospects website) wrote:

"Tucker was the Arizona Fall League’s most elegant defender. Rangy and smooth, sure-handed and graceful, he has room to add a few pounds as he ages while still remaining above-average at short. A torn labrum in 2015 cast doubt on Tucker’s ability to stay there if his arm strength weren’t to return but, though it took quite a while, it is not only back but has improved, and he now has a 70 arm. With such an excellent defensive foundation in place, it’s very likely that Tucker becomes an everyday player."

FanGraphs uses a scale to rate various aspects of a prospect’s potential. For batters, these categories are hit, game power, raw power, speed, field, and throws. The scale that FanGraphs uses to rate prospects in these categories is sort of a tiered system.

A value is assigned from 30 to 80 that represents the current rating for the prospect in that category, and then a second value is assigned on that same scale that represents the prospects potential or future rating. The values are used predominantly as relative measurements – meaning that they describe the value of a prospect relative to the other prospects on the top 100 list. Below is a breakdown of how many prospects were in each tier for the year 2018.

Courtesy of Fangraphs Prospect Valuation

An 80 rating is extremely rare and is not guaranteed to be assigned to any prospects in a given year. It’s not quite rare enough to say an 80 tool is a once in a generation player – but it is kind of in that direction.

Defensively, the three most important categories are field, throws and speed. As a prospect, Tucker rated out as a 50/55 field, a 70/70 throws and a 55/50 speed. For fielding, this translates to Tucker having current top 100 fielding talent with top 50 fielding talent potential. For defensive arm strength, Tucker has one of the two best arms out of all current prospects.

In a small sample size, Tucker’s defensive potential translated well to the Big Leagues. Over 318 innings with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2019, Tucker rated out at a +4.6 UZR/150 – meaning that over 150 games, Tucker’s defense alone would save his team an additional 4.6 runs over the league average shortstop.

So why switch Tucker to center field when he is clearly an above average shortstop? The Pittsburgh Pirates obviously think there is a good reason as Tucker has logged 135 innings in center field for 2020 and zero innings at SS – and I think there are a few good reasons myself.

First and foremost, the Pittsburgh Pirates are not a competitive MLB team in 2020 and never really had plans to be competitive. The team is in a clear rebuilding season and one of their main goals should be to identify talent and player capabilities. If there is a season to have a player try a new position, it would be this one.

Second, the Pittsburgh Pirates have a plethora of quality middle infield prospects/current players and not many outfield prospects/current players. Let’s break this one down by looking at all of the players that have a realistic chance to start at these positions over the next few years for the Pirates.


Bryan Reynolds  – Signed through 2025

  • Throws – 40/40
  • Field – 45/50
  • Speed – 50/50

Travis Swaggerty – Expected MLB Debut 2022

  • Throws – 60/60
  • Field – 55/60
  • Speed – 65/65

Jared Olivia – Expected MLB Debut 2021

  • Throws – 50/50
  • Field – 50/55
  • Speed – 60/60

Middle Infield:

Kevin Newman – Signed through 2024

  • Throws – 50/50
  • Field – 40/45
  • Speed 60/60

Cole Tucker – Signed through 2025

  • Throws – 70/70
  • Field – 50/55
  • Speed – 55/50

Oneil Cruz – Expected MLB Debut 2021

  • Throws – 80/80
  • Field – 40/45
  • Speed – 60/45

Liover Peguero – Expected MLB Debut 2022

  • Throws – 55/55
  • Field – 45/55
  • Speed – 60/55

Nick Gonzales – Expected MLB Debut 2022/2023

  • No evaluation yet, but expected to be either the best or second best prospect in the Pirates’ farm system.

Ji-Hwan Bea – Expected MLB Debut 2022/2023

  • Throws – 50/55
  • Field – 40/50
  • Speed 65/65

When looking at the above prospects, it becomes abundantly clear that there is a backlog of high level middle infield talent in the Pirate farm system, while there is a bit more of a hole in the outfield. While Swaggerty and Reynolds will be main-stays in the outfield, the third outfield spot is up in the air for the Pittsburgh Pirates in a post-Gregory Polanco era. If for some reason Olivia doesn’t reach his potential, or Swaggerty/Reynolds under performs their potential, the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t have a long term outfield solution.

On the other hand, the Pirates have a lot of quality middle infielders, all with average or above average defensive grades. To start, Newman will be with the club for another four seasons and can play shortstop or second base. Realistically, I see Newman playing shortstop for another season or two until Oneil Cruz and Liover Peguero get promoted.

Cruz, one of the highest ceiling prospects in the entire MLB, has an extremely rare 80 tool arm with decent defensive grades at shortstop. His arm alone may make him the shortstop of the future for the Pirates, but he could transition to second base or corner outfield in the long run. Peguero has great defensive ratings at shortstop as well. At second base, the Pirates have 2019 first-round pick Nick Gonzales and the increasingly impressive Ji-Hwan Bea.

With six quality middle infielders for two positions on the field, moving Tucker to the outfield allows the organization to relieve some of the pressure that will come from the inevitable future logjam of talent. But why Tucker out of all of the middle infield prospects discussed above?

A few reasons stick out to me.

First, Tucker has a great attitude and is on record saying that he is willing to play where ever he is most needed. This simply isn’t the case for most players. For example, while both Newman and Cruz want to help the Pirates win, both have strong preferences to play shortstop.

Second, Tucker has the right kind of tools to make a quality outfielder. His plus speed and arm tell me that he has the ability to be a plus defender in center field.

Next. Grading the Pirates Series Split Against the Reds. dark

Finally, it may be as simple as Tucker is the first prospect up at the MLB level and the Pirates need outfield help now. The Pirates need help in the outfield in both 2020 and 2021 and Tucker is the only prospect whose bat is MLB ready. With Newman and Frazier established in the middle infield, Tucker gets more at bats by starting in the outfield on a daily basis, while also getting valuable MLB outfield experience.

While the transition may be odd to watch play out during the middle of an MLB season, I think this is definitely the right move for the Pirates and could pay huge future dividends for the organization.