Padres Prospect Report: Rusty Tucker

Rusty Tucker is considered the best of a splendid group of closers in the San Diego Padres organization. That is until he blew out his elbow, requiring Tommy John surgery. What was once taboo in baseball has now become fairly common and a year from now Tucker may actually have better stuff, if that is possible. There will always be questions until he returns and other potential closers will be vying for his spot. For the first time we recall how it happened and the future of this prospect.

"The prognosis hasn't changed," Tom Nichols, announcer for the Mobile BayBears, said. "They were telling us twelve months is the standard rehab time for Tommy John surgery.

"And the Padres have had a few of those. Adam Eaton, Kevin Walker and some others that have come back from that injury."

That is the great news. Eaton has come back strong and Walker is finally healthy and the Padres are expecting big things from the lefty reliever in ‘04.

Nichols saw the injury firsthand and recalls the story for us.

"It was really disappointing when you think about it from a human standpoint. It is hard for the fans to do that sometimes because they become detached from the players.

"Think about a kid at the Double A level that was having an All Star season and probably in his own mind very close to being a major league player and getting to enjoy all the comforts of things that a big league career brings to you, the financial benefits and so forth. Putting the bus rides of the Southern League behind him.

"You think about how close he was as a guy who at the end of the season was voted as the number one reliever, the All Star reliever, of the Southern league.

"Rusty, on one given night, all of that is gone. He blows out his elbow, and instead of being on the doorstep of the big leagues, he is now looking at twelve months on the side and not just sitting around on the side, but twelve hard rehab months having to come back, hoping, but not being sure, hoping that his arm will return to where it was before the surgery. To lose all that in one night and to have to face the next twelve months…that is hard to even imagine. The emotional drain that that would have to have on him. I think sometimes the fans don't always understand that you are talking about a guy working towards a dream his entire life and to him; this is everything he has worked for since probably the first time he picked up a baseball.

"It all happened on one pitch. In Huntsville, I think the date was August 5th, he snapped the annular collateral ligament in his elbow and that was basically twelve months on the side hoping to get back to where he was. He was a good kid also."

It is still vivid in his mind and Nichols can't help but feel for the young lefty.

The Padres' 21st-round draft pick out of the University of Maine in 2001, Rusty Tucker was 2-6 with a 3.74 ERA and 28 saves, good for second in the league, this season at Double-A Mobile before he heard a pop in his elbow while pitching that Saturday night. In 53 innings this season, Tucker had 63 strikeouts.

The left-handed Tucker finished his junior season at Maine with a 7-2 record and a 3.26 earned run average. He allowed 24 earned runs in 66.1 innings pitched, walking 18 batters while striking out 70. He earned America East Pitcher of the Year honors that season, and was both a first team All-America East and All-New England selection. Tucker was the starter for the University Division team in the New England Collegiate All-Star Game, held at Fenway Park in Boston.

"This is a guy who was a left hander and we saw him throw 96, 97, 98 miles an hour early in the season and for a lefty to be throwing that hard, aside from Randy Johnson, you don't see a lot of that."

It wasn't always that way. In fact, Tucker came into the organization with a fastball that reached 90 miles per hour. After struggling in the Rookie Pioneer League, where he led the League in walks for 2001, the Padres decided to slow down Tucker's delivery to help improve his control. That change in his mechanics elevated his fastball into another dimension that tops out at 99 MPH.

The 23-year-old southpaw simply overpowered hitters in Class-A Fort Wayne with his new repertoire as he compiled a 5-1 record and 18 saves to go with a 1.01 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 36 innings while holding opposing batters to an amazing .149 average.

After being called up to High-A Lake Elsinore, Tucker continued what may have very well been the best season of any relief pitcher in Minor League Baseball, as he saved 14 more games and struck out 33 batters in 30 more innings. In total, Tucker pitched in 65.1 innings with a WHIP of 1.12!

Tucker combines his heater with an 80 MPH slider that has a nice break to it and keeps hitters off balance. Tucker was widely considered the man to replace Trevor Hoffman as closer for the Padres as early as 2005. Now he will have to work towards a debut in 2006. Losing the year, combined with the re-signing of Hoffman, will not hinder his development. Tucker is expected to return late next year and will have another year to show his arm has healed before getting an opportunity at the big leagues.

"You hope for a guy like that, that he will be able to come back and get right back on the same pace that he was on to get to the big leagues," Nichols said.

The key for Tucker will be not losing sight of his goals. Having thrived in a closers role, Tucker should be well suited for the trials ahead. Nichols is confident saying, "That is another name for Padres fans to look for in the future."

A healthy return by Tucker could land him in the big leagues; it is a shame that one to two baseball years were shaved off his life.

Denis Savage can be reached at

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