ZEBULON, N.C.—Kyle Tucker, the Astros’ No. 2 prospect and the No. 19 prospect on the preseason Top 100 Prospects, entered this season wanting to add more power to his game. To do that, he had to work hard to put more weight on his frame. And to do that, he had to start eating breakfast.
“It was trying to eat a lot more. I started eating breakfast more,” Tucker said. “Normally, I’m not a big breakfast guy, but I had to kind of force myself to do that in the offseason so I could gain the weight. So that kind of factored in to it.”
Now, his mornings include a pre-workout shake, a protein bar and maybe a Chick-fil-A breakfast if he’s up early enough. Those extra calories, plus many more throughout the day and a fall-to-spring workout regimen, have resulted in 15-20 pounds of good weight. And after hitting nine home runs in a 2016 season abbreviated by a hip injury, Tucker has socked three in the first 14 games this season. As he continued working out and adding weight, he could feel the ball start coming off his bat with more authority.
A scout who has seen Tucker multiple times noticed the ball coming off harder, too, but also noted that Tucker had an uncanny knack for getting the barrel to the ball nearly every time. He saw above-average hand-eye coordination and a kind of breezy power that allowed to him to hit the ball hard without looking like he’s swinging out of his shoes. It’s translating in the stat line, too, where Tucker is hitting .296/.367/.611 with six doubles, three home runs and six RBIs to go with four stolen bases.
“I can tell there’s a little bit of a difference from last year,” Tucker said. “It’s coming off the bat a little bit better, but I think that’s more of my swing path and everything. But the weight does factor in to it.”
More than power, though, Tucker is also working this season on refining his plate discipline. The results were evident in his team’s win on Thursday night, when he came back from down two strikes in an at-bat to work a walk and later when he refused to expand the zone against Carolina’s Quintin Torres-Costa, the type of low-slot lefthander who gives lefthanded hitters fits. Taking close pitches and working deep counts won’t necessarily show up in the box score, but they do go a long way toward Tucker’s development as a complete player.
“I can tell my zone has gotten a little bit smaller, but I’m still chasing a few balls,” Tucker said. “Obviously I can factor that out as I grow up and keep taking pitches. You can’t swing at those close pitches that are on the corner with one strike or no strikes on you. You’ve got to wait until they throw it in your spot and you’ve got to attack from there.”
At the same time he’s adding weight and power, however, Tucker wants to maintain his speed as well. Doing so will help him stay in center field and keep him a threat on the basepaths. He stole 32 bases in 44 chances last year and he’d like to continue that prowess. If he continues adding weight, however, those totals are likely to decline. So he’s got to strike a balance in his workouts to maintain his rep as one of the minors’ true power-speed threats.
“Last year, I think I had 32 bags, so that’s pretty good, so I’d like to stay up there,” he said. “And I had nine home runs last year, so I’m trying to get into double-digits this year. It’s basically just, get as much as you can.”
• Franklin Perez started for Buies Creek and was dominant once again. The Astros’ No. 4 prospect sat comfortably in the low 90s with his fastball but reached back on multiple occasions for 94-95 mph gas to finish off hitters. Over five innings the 19-year-old Perez allowed just two hits, walked nobody and struck out seven before yielding to the second half of the day’s piggyback tandem, lefthander Matt Bower. Perez continued to show above-average command of his arsenal all evening long. His changeup showed excellent fade late, and he modified the velocity on his slider all night to keep hitters’ timing off. In 14.2 innings he’s allowed just three hits, no runs, walked three and struck out 14.
• Carolina outfielder Corey Ray continued to struggle in his return from the disabled list. After opening his season with a triple, Ray has managed just one hit over the past three games and has struck out seven times in his first 15 at-bats. He’s been particularly vulnerable to pitches on the outside part of the plate, whether they’re fastballs or offspeed pitches. Opposing pitchers have realized this, and have pounded him away in his early action.
• Carolina righthander Cody Ponce struggled with command all game long and was roughed up as a result. Buies Creek tagged the Brewers’ No. 16 prospect for seven runs (four earned) in 2.2 innings on six hits and two walks. His fastball sat between 90-92 mph all game, and he had problems getting the ball down in the zone. He threw a full four-pitch arsenal, but his offspeeds only flashed average at times but weren’t consistent enough to grade them as such.