Cole Tucker finally got to enjoy a regular offseason this past winter. He's enjoying a breakout regular season as a result.
A first-round pick in 2014, he underwent thumb surgery in October 2014 and shoulder surgery in August 2015, severely limiting what he could do in what were meant to be his first and second full seasons. The right shoulder procedure, in particular, seemed to hamper Tucker's performance. Doctors told him it would take 10-12 months to recover from the operation for a torn labrum, but Tucker was back on the field May 8 -- a little more than eight months after going under the knife.
"It was brutal," he said of his first two offseasons. "I feel like I rushed back a little too quickly, because my range of motion, my strength, my quickness all took a little time to get back. Being 19 [at the time], I was able to heal and come back pretty quick, but I wasn't completely there yet because of all the rehab. This year's been different. All my focus this offseason was on lifting and working on normal baseball routines, and I feel like it's showing."
The Pirates' No. 5 prospect has produced a .276/.365/.429 line with four homers, five triples, nine doubles and a Minor League-best 27 stolen bases in 50 games for Class A Advanced Bradenton this season. His 18 extra-base hits already eclipse the 14 he collected with Bradenton last year in 69 fewer plate appearances, and his 36 stolen-base attempts are more than he had in any of his previous three seasons.
And it just turned June.
"So far, so good," Tucker said of his 2017. "I think I got here around this time last year, and to think about all that's happened the second time around, it's been great. I feel like I'm expanding and excelling in the areas that I set out to at the beginning of the season. My defense has felt good. I'm stealing bases again. Now I have to just keep it rolling."
Video: Tucker's Big Day Fuels Marauders
Start with the power. The 20-year-old switch-hitting shortstop has gone deep four times this season, and if that doesn't seem like much, consider he entered 2017 with just six homers in his first three seasons combined. There's also his .153 isolated slugging percentage, 90 points higher than the ISO he put up during his first run through the pitcher-friendly Florida State League.
Part of that has been the added muscle thats came with the extra non-rehab training this offseason. But Tucker has also made some mechanical adjustments to make power a bigger part of his game in 2017.
Because of his plus speed, the 24th overall pick in 2014 had been used almost exclusively in the leadoff spot during his first two full seasons, and he tried to act the part. The problem was, at a listed 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, he never really looked the part either.
"I'm trying to be tall in the box more," he said. "In past years if you saw me, I'd be a lot more spread out at first and then a little scrunched up too trying to make myself smaller and more compact. But I'm 6-3, 6-4, and I need to be taller in the box to use my long legs and long levers to generate some leverage and extension. I knew if I got in a better position to hit more consistently, the doubles, triples and homers would come at some point."
Given his frame, those optimistic about Tucker's chances as a prospect always believed he could someday become more of a power hitter than what he showed earlier in his career, but it would take work. His speed, however, was something more easily carried from his days at Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix.
Indeed, Tucker stole 25 bags at Class A West Virginia in 2015 before the shoulder issues popped up. However, he only attempted 13 thefts in 2016 between West Virginia and Bradenton and was successful six times. He insists that cutting back wasn't a result of injury concerns, just ineffectiveness. He made stolen base efficiency a focus in the spring and has ridden a much more successful string of steals this campaign.
"Speed is a tool I have -- I know that," Tucker said. "But I guess I was a little gun-shy last year. I've tried to forget about that and be more aggressive this year, and now that I've seen that I can go, it keeps pushing me. The problem is now everyone in the park knows I can go, so I have to be a little bit smarter in picking my chances. It's tougher for sure, but it's something I can handle because I'll need to at Double-A, Triple-A and Pittsburgh. Yadier Molina won't just let me take second base when I see him."
Because of Tucker's speed, power potential and plus defensive ability at short, there's always been the belief he could become a big-time prospect for the Pirates, once the results started rolling in. The promise of a multi-tooled player at a premium position is how he ended up being ranked fifth in a fairly deep system. But now that he's putting things together, Tucker has a chance to creep into top-100 status with more sustained success in the FSL. The Pirates already have a top-100 prospect playing short at Double-A in Kevin Newman, so they won't need to press Tucker this summer, but with Newman hitting .232 in 43 games at Altoona, Tucker could be creeping up on the 23-year-old.
But first, he needs to make sure he follows up his first fully healthy offseason with his first fully healthy regular season.
"I'm definitely trying to take care of myself," Tucker said. "[Manager Gerardo Alvarez] has been great with that. We've had a real open line of communication and get together a couple times a week to ask where I'm at. I haven't asked for a blow yet, but he makes sure I get one every now and then. There's a part of me that wants to make up for all the lost at-bats and innings and games, but I'm very, very pleased with how things are going now. I just have to be smart."