Tucker makes highlight reel in outfield debut

July 21st, 2020

On Friday, Cole Tucker began preparing to play the outfield for the first time in his professional career. By Sunday afternoon, Pirates bench coach Don Kelly had seen enough to confidently declare, “There’s no doubt in my mind that he can play outfield.”

On Monday, with three whole days of experience, Tucker may have proven his bench coach to be correct.

Tucker made his debut as an outfielder in the fifth inning of Pittsburgh’s 11-7 loss to Cleveland at Progressive Field in the second of the clubs’ three preseason exhibition meetings leading up to Opening Day. Tucker entered the game in right field, moved to center in the sixth inning and immediately made an amazing, sliding grab in front of the wall.

“I felt athletic out there on the whole tonight, which was exciting just because I’ve never really done that,” Tucker said. “But it kind of felt natural and felt like second nature.”

The former first-round Draft pick’s only real experience in center field came on Sunday, when he stood in the outfield with first-base coach Tarrik Brock during a simulated game without having a ball hit in his direction. He figured he last played there when he was 14 or 15 years old, “just messing around in high school,” and he’s never played the outfield professionally. But when Bradley Zimmer’s fly ball off Michael Feliz sailed to the warning track in left-center, Tucker dashed back and to his right in pursuit.

“I was scared,” Tucker said, “because walls hurt.”

Tucker didn’t take the most direct route, moving back toward the wall first then running the rest of the way parallel to the wall. That gave him a good angle, however, as he reached out his gloved left hand then slid on both knees as he snagged the ball for the second out of the inning.

“He looked good out there,” manager Derek Shelton said. “From an infielder going to the outfield, the wall is one of the toughest things to navigate, and I thought he did a really nice job with it.”

The ever-cheerful Tucker bounced to his feet after making the play, smiling as he shook his head and smacked left fielder Socrates Brito’s glove with his own. When he checked his phone after the game, he had a text message from veteran center fielder Jarrod Dyson saying, “Dude, you look natural out there. Great play.”

Maybe this outfield thing won’t be too hard, right?

“I loved it. I thought it was cool. I’m fast, and I get to be fast out there,” Tucker said. “Outfield is a lot less technical. It’s more just, ‘Hey, be athletic and go catch the ball and get it in to the people who know what to do with it.’ I kinda like that.

“I always have considered myself a shortstop. I will for a long time, honestly. But this is new, and it’s exciting. I think it’s something that I can really excel at. So hopefully it plays out the rest of camp, this season and who knows, man? I might be an outfielder for a really long time. The future is unknown. It’s kind of exciting.”

But adding versatility is indeed the goal here, not turning Tucker into a full-time outfielder. Kelly said as much on Sunday, explaining that the Pirates told Tucker that shortstop is still his position and they want him to focus on maintaining his skills in the infield. But it will benefit both Tucker and the Pirates right now if he’s able to be more versatile, which is why Shelton and general manager Ben Cherington introduced the idea late last week.

“They’re like, ‘Hey, how would you feel about getting some looks in the outfielder?’ I was like, ‘Hell yeah, of course,’” Tucker said. “I actually used a little more vulgar language, but I was very excited just because of the opportunity of getting playing time and having the opportunity to make a difference on the field and playing somewhere where I think my athleticism will really play. I was excited about it, and I still am excited about it.”

The Pirates are short on depth in the outfield, especially while right fielder Gregory Polanco is sidelined following a positive COVID-19 test. Tucker has the arm strength, speed and athleticism to handle it, as he showed Monday night. And they are relatively deep in the middle infield, especially at Tucker’s natural position of shortstop.

Kevin Newman will be the Pirates’ everyday shortstop, and Adam Frazier will play most days at second base. They have capable defensive backups in Erik González and JT Riddle along with super-utility man Phillip Evans, who homered in Monday’s game. That doesn’t leave much room for Tucker, a slick defender who hit just .211 with a .626 OPS over 159 plate appearances last season.

So, adding outfield defense to Tucker’s repertoire not only addresses a need for Pittsburgh. It provides a path to playing time. This is a crucial development year for the Pirates in general and specifically for Tucker, who needs to show he can handle Major League pitching well enough to earn a spot in the lineup moving forward.

On Saturday, Tucker sliced a double to left-center field, the kind of drive he’s hoping to see often this year after tweaking his swing this offseason to add more loft. If he can do that more often, it’ll help his case to become an everyday player. Which spot he’s in is less important.

“The most important position is the lineup card,” Tucker said. “As long as I’m on it, I’m good with it.”