Cole Tucker compared his first foray at the Pittsburgh Pirates’ major league camp to being not just the new kid in class but the youngest. Last year, the shortstop prospect sat wide-eyed in the corner of the clubhouse, eavesdropping on the conversations of veterans David Freese, Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison and Sean Rodriguez.
“This year, there’s more of a sense of belonging,” said Tucker, a 2014 first-round draft pick (No. 24 overall) who was promoted to the 40-man roster this winter. “I feel like I fit in, and this is where I should be and this is where I’m going to be, at this level and with this caliber of a team.
The 22-year-old is the Pirates’ No. 5 prospect, and his stock is on the rise after an outstanding performance in the Arizona Fall League. Tucker played for the Surprise Saguaros, slashing .370/.442/.457 to rank third in batting average and fifth with 11 runs scored in a league with the game’s top prospects. He also won the AFL Sportsmanship Award.
“It adds some confidence, playing at the highest level I’ve ever played at,” Tucker said. “That fall league atmosphere is no joke. There’s a ton of really, really, really good players, so going out there and killing it and doing really well served me well personally. I think it was great to go out and show that I belonged and that I could thrive out there.
“That’s what I want to bring to this camp. I want to bring that same mentality, that same energy, that same high level of play at shortstop and show that I can do it here, too.”
— Pirates (@Pirates) February 24, 2019
Even so, Tucker is behind Erik Gonzalez and Kevin Newman in the competition for the Pirates’ starting shortstop job. The Pirates traded for Gonzalez, and Newman is another former first-rounder who spent September in the majors.
Tucker and Newman have known each other since Newman hosted Tucker on his recruiting visits to the University of Arizona, so their competition is a friendly one in some ways.
“There’s always expectations, with me and Kevin being prospects coming up,” Tucker said. “There’s expectations you want to do well and prove the people who drafted you right. …
“We’re all hungry, and we all want a job at that spot, so whatever happens this year or next year or the year after that, I’m excited to go out and make it mine. I’m going to put my best foot forward … to be an everyday shortstop at some point.”
That’s why Tucker isn’t worried about starting this season at Triple-A Indianapolis. He struggled at the plate through the end of May last season at Double-A Altoona, but after switching his stance to stand taller he finished with a slash line of .259/.333/.356 and reduced his ratio of strikeouts to walks.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Tucker separates himself with his speed. He dangerous on the base paths — he had 35 stolen bases in Altoona — and has good range at short. In successive spring games, he reached on infield singles to shortstop. He scored twice against Tampa Bay on Sunday.
“The speed plays on both sides of the ball,” Tucker said. “I’m fast and athletic. I take pride in making the routine play at shortstop and making an impact with the bat. I hit the ball very hard, and I’m trying to have consistent, quality at-bats at the top of the order and just drive the ball all over the place. Not crazy, sexy home runs but I can still do damage within the park.”
Perhaps Tucker’s best trait, however, is his personality. He is a charismatic player who teammates gravitate toward in the clubhouse, one with a perpetual smile and an attitude that brings positive vibes. It’s no wonder a Pirates player known for his energy and enthusiasm has taken Tucker under his wing. Pitcher Chris Archer reached out to Tucker on Instagram and shared his phone number, encouraging Tucker to call if he needed anything.
“That was a really cool thing, for an established veteran that I’ve looked up to and seen play on TV all these years reach out to a young kid,” Tucker said. “I can’t say enough about him as a person and, obviously, his game speaks a lot for itself. You’d never know it but Chris Archer is a really good, down-to-earth human being.”
The same could be said for Tucker, and he reminds himself of a conversation with Clint Hurdle. The Pirates manager told Tucker the starting pitchers like having him play shortstop behind them, which is why Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove and Archer reached out to the minor-leaguer and made him feel included.
Tucker wants to be the type of player who returns that favor someday.
“Absolutely, that’s what you strive to be,” Tucker said. “I love to be that glue guy, that leader in the clubhouse. I have a ton of good examples of what that looks like at the big-league level, so I’m looking forward to growing into that and joining that club of leaders here in Pittsburgh.”
For now, he’s trying to fit in. But, this time, Tucker believes he belongs.