On Thursday, the Astros selected Preston Tucker from AAA Fresno to replace George Springer, who landed on the 7-day DL with a presumed concussion after running into an outfield wall. Tucker, a left-handed batter, is the first player drafted under GM Jeff Luhnow's regime with the Astros to reach the major leagues.
Tucker's distant past:
Back in 2012, prior to the draft that would eventually yield top prospects Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers Jr, Rio Ruiz, Brett Phillips, Mark Appel (sort of), and Tucker among other likely major league contributors, the Crawfish Boxes profiled Tucker as a potential target for the Astros.
Tucker had hit a career .329/.402/.577 over four seasons for the University of Florida, setting all-time records at the school for hits (341), RBI (258), and games played. Entering the draft though, his college senior status lessened his bargaining leverage with major league teams, which made his draft stock drop. Additionally, his accolades were overshadowed by teammate catcher Mike Zunino, who was eventually drafted 3rd overall in 2012.
Despite his impressive college statistics, scouts were nearly universally doubtful of Tucker's body type, defensive future, and lack of speed. As such, while acknowledging that he had the bat to reach the major leagues, he was projected to be drafted somewhere after the third round.
That prediction did not account for the new collective bargaining agreement in baseball that further diminished the leverage of college seniors, who now became effectively under-slot targets for the lower rounds of the top 10 whose leftover unpaid bonus money could go to higher-profile targets who demanded over-slot bonuses. Tucker was drafted in the seventh round by the Astros and signed to $100,000, approximately $40,000 lower than MLB's slot value.
Tucker's recent past:
Because of his advanced bat, the Astros immediately placed Tucker in Low-A Tri Cities for the 2012 season, where he rewarded their faith by slugging .321/.390/.509 with eight home runs in only 42 games, for a 165 wRC+.
In 2013, he plowed his way through Lancaster, hitting .326/.384/.544 for a 140 wRC+. His mid-year promotion to Corpus Christi began a two-year trend of slow adjustment to higher levels of baseball. In 2013, Tucker hit .262/.347/.456 at AA, following that up the next year with .276/.348/.536 at the same level. That earned him another mid-season promotion, to AAA Oklahoma City, where he hit .287/.356/.429 for a disappointing 103 wRC+.
In 2015, he didn't come roaring out of the gate...he knocked the gate down and vaporized it. In 25 games at AAA Fresno, Tucker blasted a minor-league leading 10 home runs in 25 games with a batting line of .320/.378/.650. With this, he seemed to force the Astros' hand when Springer landed on the Disabled List, bypassing other batters already on the 40-man roster to earn the call up. To make room for Tucker, the Astros DFA'd utility infielder Ronald Torreyes, who had been questionably protected from the Rule 5 draft only months earlier, leaving Delino DeShields, a first-round draft pick, exposed to be selected by the Dallas Rangerettes.
Throughout Tucker's minor league career to date, national media and fans still thought that his "bad baseball body" (a repeated claim in articles about Tucker going back to his college days) and "questionable defense" held him back from being regarded a top national prospect, and so he never cracked any of the vaunted Top 100 lists. On MLB.com, he peaked at #15 on their list of Astros minor leaguers, saying:
Tucker doesn't have the flashiest tools, and he's always flown a bit under the radar despite his long track record. His power is his best tool, and his 49 home runs during his first two full professional season were the most among all Astros Minor Leaguers in that time frame. He won't get cheated at the plate, but he has a sound approach and knows how to work a walk.
Tucker was a semi-favorite among the blogging community, who saw him as the next Allen Craig. Or rather, what Allen Craig used to be before he collapsed into the shell he is today. On the TCB Top 30, Tucker ranked 14th and 13th in 2013 and 2014, with some writers ranking him as high as sixth. During one interview with the Astros front office where TCB was present, an exec rattled off a list of the Astros top prospects, with the names mentioned including Correa, Appel, Jon Singleton, Springer, and Tucker. There were a few raised eyebrows in the room, but the takeaway was that the Astros think highly of their 7th-round slugger.
Despite continued solid performance, questions still abounded about Tucker. Routinely, articles and comments cited his "bad baseball body" (a dubious claim, looking at photos), and questionable defense, but without citing specific issues. Often, scouts questioned whether his bat speed would play in the major leagues. Is he a first baseman? A DH? A left fielder? Many observers speculated that as a lefty, he would become a platoon hitter.
That last speculation, oft-repeated, was the most puzzling. During his minor league career, Tucker actually showed a reverse platoon split, batting .321/.377/.512 against lefties and .287/.362/.503 against Right-Handers. He boasted a 78% contact rate, a good number for a slugger, with an in-zone contact rate of 82% (not great, but not bad).
Tucker's immediate future:
Most encouragingly, Tucker showed great plate discipline during his minor league career, with a 84.4% rate of making correct swing decisions on pitches inside and outside the zone, a number that was among the best in the Texas and Pacific Coast leagues. As this stat is one that settles quickly in a player's career, strike zone judgement appears to be a strength that Tucker can carry into the major leagues.
Tucker is something of a pull hitter, but not so much that he can't beat a shift by bopping one the other way, as shown in the heat map below, courtesy of MLBfarm.com.
SB Nation's John Sickels addressed Tucker's call up, and appears less concerned that Tucker can't hack it in the majors. Most notably, Sickels implies that the reports of Tucker's inability to play defense are exaggerated:
With the glove, he is a competent defender at either outfield corner and has some limited experience at first base.
In the near term, it will be interesting to see if Tucker continues his trend of being slow to adjust to a new level of play. While Springer remains on DL, Tucker figures to be the everyday left fielder for the Astros. What happens after Springer's return will largely depend on Tucker's performance. If he goes bonkers and slugs his way into candidacy for Rookie of the Year, the Astros would have an interesting pickle on their hands, with four everyday outfielders on the roster (with Colby Rasmus and Jake Marisnick), a good backup in Robbie Grossman who has defensive utility, and two lumbering behemoths who can play left in a pinch in Chris Carter and Evan Gattis.
The most likely scenario is that when Springer returns, Tucker is returned to AAA so that he can continue to receive every day playing time in the expectation that he will compete for the regular Left Field role on the 2016 roster.
Tucker's long-term future:
Tucker's floor now looks like no worse than that of a good MLB pinch hitter or DH on a 2nd-division team. Even at that, as a seventh-round draft pick, he has beaten long odds. But Tucker's ceiling seems to be what it always has been - a power hitting LF/DH/1B with 25+ HR pop, limited but not egregious on defense, and little base running value. The majors are filled with such players, even ones who scouts deride as having "bad bodies"*
*Okay, seriously...can we stop with the "bad body" nonsense? Babe Ruth was chubby. Lance Berkman couldn't shake the moniker "Fat Elvis." CC Sabathia won a Cy Young award, and so did Bartolo Colon. Pablo Sandoval, nicknamed "Kung Fu Panda", just became a bajillionaire playing the hot corner. If they can play baseball, who gives a crud what their body type is?
Everybody likes a good comparison, and Tucker has repeatedly been compared to Allen Craig, mainly due to his status as an overlooked power hitting prospect and position, and the fact that both were drafted by Luhnow. But here's another comparison of two players' minor league hitting statistics:
Player A: .306/.342/.465, 583 games (minor leagues)
Tucker: 296/.365/.507, 340 games (minor leagues)
Player A is another "bad body" slugger who played LF and a little 1B, and both fairly indifferently, who couldn't run worth a darn: Carlos Lee. Despite those knocks against him, Lee had a 13-year major league career and bonked 358 home runs while hitting .285/.339/.483, for a wRC+ of 112. With the same skills and knocks against him, Lee represents a reasonable upside for Tucker's career, and one that seems more likely now than it did when Tucker was drafted back in 2012.
Slash stats: .321/.390/.509 = .321 batting average, .390 on-base percentage, .509 slugging percentage
wRC+: A derived statistic that compares a player's offensive contribution to a league average of 100. A wRC+ of 165 says that the player's contribution was 65% better than the average performer at the same league level.