It's not uncommon for Minor League players to have competing in the Arizona Fall League on their wish list as prospects. For Pirates shortstop Cole Tucker, however, it's been a life-long ambition."Publicly, it's been like a year in the works, but in my life, it's been like 22 years in
It's not uncommon for Minor League players to have competing in the Arizona Fall League on their wish list as prospects. For Pirates shortstop Cole Tucker, however, it's been a life-long ambition.
"Publicly, it's been like a year in the works, but in my life, it's been like 22 years in the works," said Tucker, the Phoenix-area native and Pirates' No. 5 prospect, who was slated to head to the AFL a year ago but couldn't because of a broken thumb. "I used to come to these games with my dad. I've always dreamt of playing here.
Arizona Fall League overviews for all 30 teams
"I remember the year Bryce Harper was here, it was like a zoo and now being here as a player is pretty special. Getting out here to compete with this level of talent is pretty special."
Tucker showed he belonged in the opening week of the AFL, going 4-for-9 with four RBIs and three steals in his first two games for the Surprise Saguaros. It's been since high school that the 22-year-old shortstop has been able to truly play at home, and he is soaking up every moment of it.
"It's the best of both worlds," Tucker said. "When I'm gone, I get my baseball life. When I'm in the offseason, I get my family and friends life. Now, those are kind of colliding. I'm wearing out the pass list. I'm leaving like 20 tickets a night, so it's pretty special."
Tucker is feeling particularly good about his own play after a strong second half with Double-A Altoona that saw him raise his OPS more than 140 points from his first half. He set career highs in hits and total bases while swiping 35 bases for the second straight year (he had 47 steals in 2017), but he might be the most proud of his career bests in two other categories: games played and at-bats.
"It was successful just in the fact that I played 130-something games. I'd never really played that many games in a year before just being healthy all the way through, so that was a win for me," Tucker said. "I struggled with the bat a little bit in May, like a lot a bit, in May and I got through it and got out of it, got rolling in the second half, especially after the All-Star break, so it was a success for me.
"I felt like I grew definitely on the defensive side of the ball, becoming a better shortstop, gaining more arm strength coming back from that whole shoulder thing I had a couple of years ago. I just feel I'm becoming a more complete player the closer I get to the big leagues."
And he knows he's getting close. He saw organization-mates like Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer make it up to Pittsburgh for the first time and knows that he can use his time back at home in Arizona this fall to help him be part of the next wave.
"We, as players, we're always paying attention and a lot of our friends go up and come down, so we're hyper-aware of what's going on and to be that close, we are kind of chomping at the bit to get that next opportunity," Tucker said. "We know we're going to get them, especially with Pittsburgh. We're a really homegrown team, and being prospects with this team, it's really exciting to know how close we are and how good we can ultimately be."
Pirates hitters in the Fall League
Will Craig, 1B: The 2016 first-round pick found his power in his second full season, with 20 homers and 102 RBIs, but he also saw his strikeout rate go up and walk rate go down. The extra reps in the AFL will help him work on his overall approach against a high level of pitching.
Bryan Reynolds, OF: Acquired in the Andrew McCutchen trade, Reynolds' first season in the organization was delayed before it even started because of a broken hamate. He came back and swung the bat well, especially in a .342/.409/.470 August. He's adding to his 331 at-bats during the regular season with Surprise.
Pirates pitchers in the Fall League
Dario Agrazal, RHP: A shoulder strain forced Agrazal out of action for nearly two months, though when he was on the mound, he continued to be a strike-throwing groundball machine with Double-A Altoona. He's making up for some of those lost innings this fall.
Matt Eckelman, RHP: The 6-foot-4 right-hander is coming off a year that saw him save 17 games between Bradenton and Altoona. He has a mid-90s fastball and a decent changeup, but his best pitch is his low-90s splitter. Some improvement in command (4.3 BB/9) could help him make the final step to Pittsburgh.
Geoff Hartlieb, RHP: A former college basketball player, the 6-foot-6 Hartlieb has a low three-quarters power sinker that can touch the upper-90s. He also has a slider with good shape to it, but he needs to work on his changeup as he struggled against left-handed hitters at times.
Blake Weiman, LHP: Weiman moved to the bullpen in college and it's stuck, as he pitched across three levels and reached Double-A in his first full season. A 10.3 K/9 combined with a 1.2 BB/9 ratio has some thinking he'll be ready for Pittsburgh soon.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB Pipeline. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.