Jonathan Mayo

Tucker injury opens door at short for Kramer

Pirates' Fall League contingent, top 2017 prep Draft picks getting work in at instructs

Tucker injury opens door at short for Kramer

While much of Florida was battered by Hurricane Irma, the Pirates were relieved that Pirate City in Bradenton was relatively unharmed by the storm. That is allowing them to jump into their instructional league program without too much disruption.

Pirates Minor Leaguers had their first full workout last Wednesday, thanks to the fact Pirate City had just some cosmetic damage and the staff worked quickly to get things ready. Games were pushed back only slightly because of the hurricane, with play opening up on Monday as they host the Rays.

The games, of course, are merely a backdrop, a means to a larger developmental end. Scoreboards aren't used, performances don't really matter all that much. Instead, it's a chance for the staff to work with players largely in the lower levels of the system all in one large group to help them move forward. There are some interesting groups of players in Bradenton participating this fall.

The Fall Leaguers

Players who participate in the Arizona Fall League tend to be a bit more advanced than the average instructs player. But the Pirates crop headed to Arizona is in Bradenton currently getting prepared for that trip westward.

Pirates Top 30 prospects at instructs
2. Mitch Keller, RHP
3. Shane Baz, RHP
5. Cole Tucker, SS
9. Kevin Kramer, 2B
10. Steven Jennings, RHP
11. Taylor Hearn, LHP
13. Calvin Mitchell, OF
14. Conner Uselton, OF
15. Oneil Cruz, 3B/SS
17. Travis Macgregor, RHP
21. Stephen Alemais, SS
23. Brandon Waddell, LHP
24. Braeden Ogle, LHP
27. Domingo Robles, LHP
28. Max Kranick, RHP
29. Dario Agrazal, RHP
30. Adrian Valerio, SS

The most interesting storyline from this group is on the left side of the infield. Former first rounder Cole Tucker has had a hard time staying healthy with what farm director Larry Broadway described as "some weird impact injuries." Earlier this year, the Pirates' No. 5 prospect got hit by a pitch and broke his thumb. So he was going to head to the AFL, with the added benefit of Phoenix being his hometown, to make up for some lost time. But a broken hand suffered from diving into a base during the playoffs has him in rehab mode instead.

"Hopefully, we're able to get some time in for him, hopefully sometime halfway through," Broadway said. "We'll just keep his lower half going here while he is healing."

Tucker was going to play shortstop regularly for the Glendale Desert Dogs, but there is a silver lining to the cloud of his injury. Tucker's absence means No. 9 prospect Kevin Kramer gets the chance to slide over to short. The 2015 second-round pick played shortstop during his time at UCLA, even after a torn labrum, but moved to second as a pro, partially because of his arm strength and partially in deference to 2015 first-rounder and shortstop Kevin Newman. Kramer came back from his own broken hand in time for the end of the Double-A Eastern League playoffs, so he's making up for lost at-bats and will get the chance to add some positional flexibility to his resume as well.

"He's going to play short at instructs every day to get him ready," Broadway said. "We'd kept him working out there to stretch the arm out, but he's excited to get some game time there."

The 2017 Draft class

After players get drafted and sign, they often go straight out to start their pro career. In the Pirates system, it's typically at one of three affiliates: the Gulf Coast League Pirates, the Bristol Pirates in the rookie-level Appalachian League and the West Virginia Black Bears in the short-season New York-Penn League. This means instructs is the first time that the Pirates staff gets them under one roof with the chance to work with them and point them all in the same direction.

"We love instructs for Draft guys," Broadway said. "It's pure development and building relationships with these guys. It's fun with the first year guys to galvanize them as a class. When they come out they're at three different spots. At instructs they become one, they forge bonds as a group."

The Pirates' four high school draftees taken up top -- Shane Baz, Steven Jennings, Calvin Mitchell and Conner Uselton -- all got to learn their way around Pirate City while playing in the Gulf Coast League. Uselton has more catching up to do than most after a hamstring injury ended his summer debut with just seven at-bats to his name.

"Running will be the last thing that comes," Broadway said about Uselton's rehab. "He's putting in full work days, taking batting practice, working on defense now. The running progression will take some time."

The main objective, not only for Uselton but for all the draftees at instructs, is to get them ready for their first offseason, which, in turn, prepares them for the long first full year of pro ball which has tripped up many a prospect.

"We try to mimic the work days of Spring Training, we try to prepare them as much as possible so they can be ready for what they'll face next year, " Broadway said. "We'll make sure we're in a good spot. We don't put a lot stock in performance the first summer. But the biggest thing is with their makeup, athleticism and physicality, they'll be good fits as Pirates. Our scouts did a great job."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.