Cole Tucker returned to the West Virginia Power lineup on Sunday, seeing game action less than eight months after labrum surgery ended his 2015 season. The Pirates' 2014 first-round pick is still just 19 years old, after being one of the youngest players in the South Atlantic League last season. I was able to chat with Tucker for a few minutes after he checked back in with the Power on Saturday. Here's the transcript, lightly edited for length and clarity.
So, you're back early.
Yeah, it’s nice. It’s always good when you’re ahead of schedule. I just put in a lot of work this offseason since the surgery, through spring training in my rehab, the whole process to reach this goal of getting back early. I didn’t plan on missing this entire season, so it’s awesome to be back, and I’m excited to get back in the lineup and continue to get to work.
What was your timeline of recovery?
I had surgery on August 25, 2015. From that day they told me I probably would be down for 10 to 12 months, conservatively, and I was like, "I appreciate that, but I'm really going to try to work this thing as efficiently as I can," and I did that. Just really doing the day-to-day work in the rehab, all the stuff in the weight room, stretching, taking care of your body. Then, once you get into Christmastime, December, I started hitting and throwing, obviously on a lighter scale, not doing it every day like I'm doing now. I was really following the progression that Dr. (Neal) ElAttrache laid out for me and following that to a T, working with the Pirates rehab staff and the training staff, just following orders, and we're back. It's good to be back this early. I was just listening to what they told me, and it's worked out so far.
Were you down in Pirate City this whole time?
I went to instructional league last year, so I was in Pirate City for that, just rehabbing, not playing, obviously. I was in a sling. But I was there for instructional league, then in October I went back to Phoenix, back home and rehabbed there. I was there through all of the offseason, then in February I reported to spring training and I’ve been there ever since and just flew in this morning.
What is your time frame? Do you know if you'll be here (with West Virginia) for long?
They told me they don’t plan on me being here the whole year, which is great. I feel like I’m progressing and ready for that next jump. But we’ve also talked about just being where your feet are, just being here for the time being, and when I do get that call to jump on out of here, I’ll be ready for it. But for the time being, I'm just trying to be here, trying to help this team win and trying to clinch that first half.
How is the shoulder? How close are you to where you were before the injury?
With the labrum surgery, it’s a big operation. It’s functional. It’s not 100 percent. I’m not throwing the ball 100 miles an hour across the infield or anything, but it’s functional and it’s strong and it can withstand playing. I feel really good, don’t get me wrong, but they say that the whole strength of the shoulder won’t come back probably until next spring training. But that’s normal with the healing process and how it goes with the labrum surgery. But it feels really good. I’m comfortable that I can make all the plays I need to out there at shortstop. ... Balls are hit to me, I’m not really thinking about it. I’m just catching it and throwing it. In the earlier stages of the rehab it’s like, OK… catch it… get your front side … stay closed… do all this stuff… get on top of it. Now it’s just second nature.
Does that affect your hitting a lot?
No. And even before the surgery, throwing was the issue. There really weren't any restraints on hitting, so I’ve been pretty normal on that, just being a switch hitter, making sure I’m getting equal reps on both sides, just taking care of it.
Is it going to be a challenge facing pitching in a live game again? I'm sure it's difficult with anything when you have that much time off.
Hitting is always hard. You know that. It always has been, it always will be. But the injury that I had won’t really limit me in that sense. I feel like I’m equal with everyone else here right now on a hitting level. It’s not going to hold me back.
What's it like having a group of similar athletic middle infielders (like Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer) with you in the system? You were kind of the first wave of this new type of Pirates prospect.
It’s awesome. We’re all obviously competitive and we’re shooting for the same job, but we coexist. We all get along and hang out, and we push each other. We always talk about it. It’s not a big elephant in the room where you’re like, "Oh, we can’t talk about this stuff because we play the same position." But we all feel that we have what it takes to play in the big leagues. I know what you're talking about. We’re doing well and everyone’s progressing. And when you look at a big league diamond, more than one or two guys started their careers playing shortstop and second base, so it’s not the end of the world that we’re all middle infielders. It’s going to work out. We’re all on different paths.