5 more bold predictions for the 2024 Pittsburgh Pirates

Keep an eye out for these five things going right for the Pirates in 2024
Mar 3, 2024; North Port, Florida, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Henry Davis (32) celebrates
Mar 3, 2024; North Port, Florida, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Henry Davis (32) celebrates / Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
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There is no greater time for hope and predictions than Spring Training. There are plenty of reasons to have hope in the 2024 Pittsburgh Pirates. Between the young core in place at the big league level, the talented crop of prospects in the upper levels of the minors, and the significant steps forward the club took last season, the Pirates could make some serious noise in 2024.

March is always prediction season in baseball circles. With Spring Training now in the rear-view mirror and Opening Day now upon us, here are five bold predictions for the 2024 Pittsburgh Pirates, ranked from least to most bold:

5. Braxton Ashcraft is in the bullpen by August

The Pirates have a plethora of talented and highly-ranked arms in the minor leagues, specifically at the higher levels, and it feels like Braxton Ashcraft has been somewhat forgotten. But he shouldn't be.

Ashcraft was selected by the Pirates in the second round out of high school in 2018. He has faced three separate roadblocks in his development: a left shoulder dislocation in 2019, the COVID pandemic in 2020, and an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery and cost him the end of 2021 and all of 2022.

He has overcome the obstacles and turned into a very intriguing prospect. In his return to the mound last season, split mostly between High-A Greensboro and Double-A Altoona, the results were spectacular. In 19 appearances, all starts, Ashcraft posted a 2.39 ERA while striking out 29.6 percent of opposing hitters and walking just 5.2 percent.

That performance caught the attention of prospect pundits industry-wide, specifically Baseball America, which gave Ashcraft 60 grades (on a 20-80 scale) for his fastball, slider, and control. Among pitchers in their Top 30 Pirates prospects, only Ashcraft and Paul Skenes had their fastball, a secondary pitch, and their control graded as a 60 or better.

That plus stuff held up this spring, with Ashcraft having not allowed an earned run in four appearances. The fastball has even been up a couple of ticks from last year, now sitting 96-97 and touching 99. These are all good things—so why is he being relegated to the bullpen?

Well first off, he wasn't really a traditional starting pitcher in 2023, even though he started every game he pitched in. The Pirates eased him back into game action as he returned from his elbow injury, but the build-up wasn't exactly gradual—his usage was pretty consistent throughout the season. He made 19 starts but only pitched 52.2 innings, approximately 2.2 innings per outing. He never surpassed four innings or 62 pitches or got to face any hitter a third time.

Another reason to believe the Pirates might do this is that they have transitioned multiple pitchers into relief roles in the minor leagues in recent years in order to expedite their timeline to the majors. Two examples of this are Carmen Mlodzinski and Kyle Nicolas.

Mlodzinski, a first-round pick in 2020, first began his switch to the bullpen in Double-A Altoona in 2022, and was used exclusively out of the bullpen in Triple-A Indianapolis last year. He excelled in that role, earned a promotion to Pittsburgh in June, and pitched to a 2.25 ERA the rest of the way. He's now widely expected to be a key contributor to the Pirates' bullpen in 2024 and beyond.

Nicolas' struggles were more exaggerated, as his first 20 appearances between Altoona and Indianapolis last year resulted in a 6.10 ERA. Once he was moved to the bullpen for good in August, he saw dramatic improvement, posting a 2.05 ERA while opposing batters hit just .133 against him before he was called up to Pittsburgh in September.

Braxton Ashcraft pitching out of the bullpen wouldn't be an indictment of his abilities as a pitcher; with a 60-grade on his fastball, slider, and control, he probably could thrive in a major league bullpen right now. With how much high-end pitching the Pirates have at the upper levels (Ashcraft hasn't even pitched in Triple-A yet), moving him to the bullpen would maximize his talents and probably get him to Pittsburgh faster. I think the Pirates will realize this soon, if they haven't already.