By Jim Lane
CURVE, Pa. – Cole Tucker is used to all-star status. He was a member of Team USA, which won the gold medal in the 2013 18U World Cup. A year later, at age 17, he was selected No.1 by the Pirates in the 2014 MLB draft.
Fast forward to 2017.
Tucker, who turned 21 years old in July, is the youngest player and starting shortstop on an Altoona Curve team that has its sights on the Class AA Eastern League playoffs and championship.
“I didn’t play other sports in school,” Tucker was saying recently at Peoples Natural Gas Field. “Strictly baseball. Nothing else.”
A standout at Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, Tucker committed to the University of Arizona before the Pirates made him their first pick of the 2014 MLB draft.
“Once (draft} happened, I knew I wanted to play professionally so it would have been crazy to say no (to the offer),” Tucker said.
He signed quickly and went to the Gulf Coast League Pirates rookie team.
“I was only 17 years old and jumping from high school to the GCL,” Tucker recalled. “It’s definitely a jump just being on your own, but I think I handled it well and got used to playing every day.”
While playing for former Curve catcher Milver Reyes, Tucker batted .267 in 48 games in the GCL
“I went to (low A) West Virginia in 2015, but my season was cut short by a shoulder injury,” Tucker noted. “A lot of guys on that team are here (Altoona) now, and it was a really good year,” he added of his .293 average in 73 games.
Tucker had surgery on his labrum and missed a lot of the 2016 season. His season started in West Virginia where he played in 15 games and batted .262. He was promoted to high-A Bradenton in May when Kevin Newman went on the disabled list. Tucker played in 65 games for the Marauders and batted .238 in the Florida State League.
“We won the championship and that was sweet,” Tucker said. “We didn’t play that well the second half of the season, but we played really well in the playoffs.”
Tucker began the 2017 campaign in Bradenton and was batting .285 with four homers and 32 RBIs while leading the FSL with 36 stolen bases when he was promoted to Altoona on July 20.
“I was doing well,” he said. “I had my feet under me and was swinging the bat well.
“I’m the youngest guy on the team here, but I feel I belong,” he said. “I just need to keep going and progressing. I want to finish strong, win the division and roll into the playoffs.”
Curve skipper Michael Ryan said Tucker made an immediate impact.
“What he brings to the clubhouse is his leadership ability,” Ryan said. “He came here and fit in like he’s been here all year. Everyone loves him.”
Unlike many infielders in the Pittsburgh organization, Tucker has played only shortstop during his career.
“I want to play shortstop as long as I can,” he said. “Versatility is definitely a thing with the Pirates – Adam Frazier and Max Moroff have bounced around and even Josh Harrison.
“There’s been no talk about moving me, though,” he continued, “and, right now, I’m focusing on being the best everyday shortstop I can be.”
Tucker’s dad played shortstop in the Cardinals’ minor league system, so he’s partial about men who play that position.
“Derek Jeter, of course,” Tucker responded quickly when asked his favorite player while growing up. “He’s the man.
“I also looked up to Cal Ripken and Jose Reyes. They’re tall, skinny guys like me.”
Ryan thinks Tucker has what it takes to keep moving up the baseball ladder.
“He has a lot of skills,” Ryan said. “He’s a good shortstop and is a switch hitter. He’s a strong kid and still young for the Double-A level.
“In my opinion, this is the toughest jump –from A to Double-A,” Ryan offered. “Now you’re playing against guys with major league experience. When you start playing against men, it can be eye-opening, sometimes.”