Opportunity knocks for Preston Tucker with Braves

When the Houston Astros won the World Series last October, Preston Tucker was not in uniform. He’d already spent the entire 2017 season waiting for a call that never came.

His time in Houston came to an end not long after.

Tucker was designated for assignment in December, and the Atlanta Braves decided to take a flyer on an outfielder with some power potential. His new club is hoping Tucker has a bigger role to play in 2018 and perhaps beyond.

Tucker, 27, served his time last season with Triple-A Fresno. He swatted 24 home runs and drove in 96 runs, but a crowded outfield kept him on the outside looking in with Houston.

Settling in with Atlanta this spring, Tucker is aiming to find his way back to the big leagues to stay. That’s a chance he’s getting with the Braves. Last winter he was recovering from shoulder surgery which adversely affected his bid to make the Astros big league roster.

Now healthy, Tucker is out to prove he belongs.

“I think I’m getting a lot of at-bats and that’s a good thing,” said Tucker. “They want to take a good look at me and, you know, I’m still trying to work on timing, approach and all that stuff, but right now I’m just trying to keep it simple and see the ball and put it in play and do some damage.”

Opportunity is a beautiful thing; Tucker’s is unique. His bid to make Atlanta’s opening day roster was enhanced when the Braves reassigned top prospect Ronald Acuña Jr. to minor league camp. Though Acuña is unlikely to remain in Triple-A for long, Tucker gets at least a couple of weeks to show he’s capable of contributing.

That’s a couple of weeks more than he got last season.

While some of his new teammates spent their winter making changes and reinventing their swings, Tucker was just happy to have a normal offseason. With that going for him, Tucker focused on turning good habits and routine at the plate into the desired results.

“Not so much reinventing, just trying to find some consistency,” said Tucker. “Finding the right swing path and being able to do it not only in BP and all of those things, but to do it against some of the best pitchers in the game. Because that’s the biggest difference.”

Though he showed flashes of power with 13 homers in 300 at-bats during his rookie season of 2015, Tucker struggled to find success in his second go-around. He was optioned to the minors in May and came back up July, but that’s when shoulder issues cropped up. Tucker finished the season batting just .164 in 48 games in 2016.

All of that big league time, both highs and lows, as well as the setbacks that followed have only served to provide valuable experience for Tucker.

“You can repeat the same thing in the cage all day and when you go out and have to face the No. 1 starter, sometimes you have to go back to square one.” Tucker said of his current mindset. “I try to do the little things right and keep my approach simple. I think so far I’m staying on that track and I’m going to try to do that as long as I can.”

Baseball runs in the family for Tucker, whose younger brother Kyle is one of Houston’s top prospects. About the time one Tucker was debuting in the majors, the Astros were selecting the other with the fifth overall pick in the 2015 amateur draft.

The elder Tucker enjoyed a storied career at the University of Florida, where he set multiple school records for the Gators, including hits, doubles and RBI, while finishing second in career home runs.

The former first baseman moved to the outfield during his junior year in Gainesville and has seen little time at his old position professionally, though he could play there in a pinch. With All-Star Freddie Freeman entrenched, the corner outfield spots are the ticket to playing time for Tucker in Atlanta. He’s open to either.

“I played right up until Triple-A, before I got called up, but then they moved me to left as soon as I got up in the big leagues,” said Tucker. “So, I do have experience playing a little bit of both.

“I’ve probably played 20-30 games in the big leagues in right, but most of my time has been out there in left. Last year I kind of split 50-50, so I feel comfortable with both.”

It’s been a good spring for Tucker, who heads into the final weekend of Grapefruit League play slashing .386/.460/.591 with 10 RBI in 20 games. He’s drawn six walks and struck out just four times.

Tucker is now with a team that provides at least a fighting chance to carve out some playing time. A change of scenery and new opportunity are both welcomed developments. Tucker is joining a team with young, hungry talent that is hoping to make its mark sooner than later. And he’s already seen firsthand in Houston what a club that grows together can do.

“It’s an awesome group of guys,” said Tucker. ”A lot of the guys have played together before or played against each other. I think we’re meshing pretty well and, you know, I think that the team has been swinging it and we’re throwing the ball well. I think when you have that chemistry you’re going to do that pretty often.”

The Braves are providing Tucker with a chance to play. The rest is up to him.

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