Just before Christmas there was a lot of chatter about trades involving Astros outfielder Kyle Tucker.
#Astros agree with LHH Michael Brantley on 2yr deal as first reported by the Athletic’s @Ken_Rosenthal ……that signing should set the stage now for a possible Kyle Tucker to the #Marlins for J.T. Realmuto deal…maybe DH Nelson Cruz and most assuredly a middle of rotation starter— Jim Bowden (@JimBowdenGM) December 18, 2018
The #Astros are back in the mix for #Marlins J.T. Realmuto. Top prospect Kyle Tucker remains a target for a potential deal. The #Padres also have interest, along with #Dodgers #Rays and more. Hard to say if there is a frontrunner at this point. Multiple teams involved.— Joe Frisaro (@JoeFrisaro) December 18, 2018
Should the Astros include Kyle Tucker in a possible trade for J.T. Realmuto?— Brian McTaggart (@brianmctaggart) December 18, 2018
And rightly so, considering the Astros had just signed Michael Brantley, he who played 134 games in leftfield—the spot likely vacated for Tucker in 2019—last season. Nonetheless, each time I heard or saw a trade rumor involving Tucker, I cringed. Even though Tucker didn’t make the impact fans hoped he would last season, I still believe he shouldn’t be included in any (realistic) trade.
The biggest reason I don’t want Tucker traded is his potential to be an elite talent. Tucker hit .332/.400/.590 with 24 homers and 93 RBI in 100 games at Triple-A last season. He also had the highest OPS in Triple-A—even though he was the second-youngest player in the league at just 21 years old—and was named the Astros Hitting Prospect of the Year in 2018.
Of course, we all know about his unsightly .141/.236/.439 slash during his brief stint with the Astros last season, but there’s certainly reason to be optimistic about an improved 2019. A chunk of Tucker’s poor performance in the Majors can be explained by an unbelievably low .176 BABIP. Prior to 2018, Tucker’s lowest BABIP was .219, which came with the GCL Astros during his first taste of professional baseball in 2015. After a promotion to Greeneville later that season, Tucker bumped his BABIP up to .316 and hasn’t really looked back since.
Tucker had a .364 BABIP in Triple-A last season, which is unsustainable for him in the Majors, but is still an impressive number only a level away from the top competition. As HebrewHammah astutely pointed out in his dissection of Tucker’s status with the Astros in October, Tucker’s expected slash line based on his MLB batted ball profile in 2018 was .268/.363/.382. His wOBA was a woeful .208, but Tucker’s xwOBA was .326. According to Statcast, he hit the ball hard 45.1% of the time (more than 10% above league average) and had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH (about 1 MPH higher than Brantley in 2018). Tucker also kept his K% steady with his numbers at Triple-A (18.1%) and had an average launch angle of 15.5 degrees.
The numbers don’t suggest Tucker was overmatched in his first stint in the Big Leagues, but they do indicate he had trouble getting the barrel to the ball. In his 72 plate appearances with the Astros, Tucker only barreled up two batted balls (3.9%), which was identical to Josh Reddick’s Barrel % last year. Although some adjustments likely need to be made for Tucker to achieve success at the Big-League level, the Astros notice the potential is still there.
”He dominated the Minor Leagues,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said in an interview with Brian McTaggart. “I think he’s got to come up with a ‘B’ swing that will allow it to be more adjustable to different styles of pitches and different ways that guys attack them. We talked a little about his mechanics, about what he’s learned, the different pitches he’s seen in the big leagues. I told him to come win the job next year as an outfielder.”
We also saw flashes of Tucker’s speed, which FanGraphs rated a tick higher than Jake Marisnick last season, and he stole 20 bases in Triple-A in 2018. Although Tucker’s defense was iffy at times with the Astros, he has generally been well-regarded as an outfielder. Baseball Savant doesn’t offer a glowing endorsement of Tucker’s defensive capabilities, but their scouting report indicates he should be at least serviceable:
“While Tucker’s offensive prowess could make him a star, he has the chance for average or better tools across the board once Houston moves him to an outfield corner. Though he spent most of his first two full seasons in centerfield, his average speed and circuitous routes aren’t a great fit there. He has solid arm strength and projects as a right fielder at the big league level.”
Years of Team Control
Not only does Tucker have elite potential, but the Astros will also retain his services for much longer than any key players acquired in a trade. For instance, hot commodity J.T. Realmuto only has two years remaining on his contract, while Tucker hasn’t even qualified for rookie status yet (which necessitates 130 at-bats).
Noah Syndeergaard, another name mentioned in Tucker trade rumors, has four years remaining on his contract. However, the Astros don’t have any starting outfielders on the MLB roster beyond 2020. Tucker projects as a premium, cost-effective option to replace the talent that will be lost—something Jeff Luhnow, like most GMs, has been shown to value in the past.
An interesting note from Astroball, which is a fascinating, inside look at the Astros rebuild this decade: Jeff Luhnow refused to include Kyle Tucker in Verlander trade before '17 deadline.— Wells Dusenbury (@DuseReport) December 18, 2018
Obviously different w/Realmuto's age & contract, but shows how highly they think of him.
And the Astros need Outfield Depth
There also exist a number of questions for the 2019 Astros in the outfield, particularly in left. Probably the biggest among them all is how to replace the likely loss of Marwin Gonzalez. Brantley is a possibility, but for all of his offensive attributes, he doesn’t have the same defensive ability he once did. According to Devan Fink, Brantley’s defense cost the Cleveland Indians about six runs of value last season. Tony Kemp and Jake Marisnick are also outfield options for the Astros, but neither presents the offensive upside of a Kyle Tucker.
Combine Marwin’s impending departure with the injury histories of Springer and Brantley and outfield depth becomes even more important. Tucker profiles better as a corner outfielder in the Majors, but he has played center quite a bit in the Minors and provides additional flexibility. There’s also the uncertainty of what the Astros will do at DH in 2019. I’m a proponent of primarily slotting Brantley into the DH spot, and if the Astros choose to do so there will still be a need for someone to emerge as the everyday leftfielder. Assuming Brantley is the DH, Tucker has to be the most viable option to play leftfield regularly, further increasing his value to the team.
So you’ve read my thoughts on Kyle Tucker. There’s not a realistic trade scenario in which I’d deal him, but what do you think Astros fans? Let us know in the poll and comments below.
Should the Astros trade Kyle Tucker?
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