Braxton Ashcraft returned in 2023 and pitched well. Looking ahead to 2024, how can he impact the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching staff?
In the 2018 MLB draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates took high school right-hander Braxton Ashcraft in the second round. Ashcraft would appear in the low levels of the Pirate minor league system, working to middling results over 2018 and 2019.
However, Ashcraft would barley pitch over the next three seasons. The 2020 minor league season was put on hold. Then he would throw just 38.2 innings in 2021 before undergoing Tommy John surgery, which caused him to miss all of 2022.
There were pretty low expectations heading into 2023. He had a career ERA of just 5.43 up to this point and pitched less than 50 innings over the last three years combined. But Ashcraft wouldn’t just exceed his 2023 expectations, he would shatter them by a lot. In 52.2 innings, Ashcraft worked to a 2.39 ERA, 2.85 FIP, and 1.08 WHIP.
Ashcraft posted elite peripherals as well. He struck out 29.6% of the batters he faced with a walk rate of 5.2%.This led to a 5.73 K:BB ratio. Last season, over 500 pitchers started at least 15 games throughout all levels of the minor leagues. His strikeout to walk ratio was the 6th best among all those pitchers. Ashcraft was great at limiting home runs as well with a HR/9 rate of just 0.68.
Those are some great numbers, and even more so when you think of how little he’s pitched over the last three years with all his injuries. Ashcraft was added to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. But now the question becomes what his breakout/rebound could mean for the future of the Pirates’ pitching staff.
That sort of depends on how the Pirates utilize Ashcraft moving forward. Even though Ashcraft started all 19 of his games, he never pitched more than four innings in any appearance. The Pirates tried to limit Ashcraft’s workload, and understandably so. The most innings he had pitched in any prior season was 53, and that was in 2019.
Let’s look at the potential impact he could make as both a starting pitcher or a relief pitcher. If he ends up as a starter, then that adds another talented young arm that could be in the Bucs’ rotation by the end of the season. Jared Jones and Anthony Solometo should be in the Majors by the second half of the season, if not earlier. Thomas Harrington and Bubba Chandler could potentially make their debuts sometime in the second half. Of course there’s Paul Skenes, who could be up in the bigs in May.
Ashcraft has the potential to earn a rotation spot before any of them if the Pirates make him a starting pitcher. Solometo, Jones, Skenes, Harrington, nor Chandler aren’t on the team’s 40-man roster. Ashcraft is, and that gives him a leg-up over other prospects who are nearing MLB readiness.
So what if the Pirates keep limiting his workload and send him to the bullpen? Ashcraft certainly has the stuff to be a decent reliever. He was sitting mid-90s with good breaking stuff in his return to the mound last season. He would fit in nicely with the Pirates’ already talented core set of bullpen arms. David Bednar, Colin Holderman, Dauri Moreta, Carmen Mlodzinski are a good foundation.
Ashcraft has the stuff to be a higher leverage arm. That’s not to say he will overthrow Bednar for the closer role, but could be in competition with Holderman, Moreta, and Mlodzisnki as the 7th/8th inning role by the end of the year.
One interesting idea would be sort of a hybrid between the two. Ashcraft comes out of the bullpen for two innings at a time, but in higher leverage situations. For an example of what I mean, take 2018 Josh Hader, who appeared in 55 games and pitched 81.1 innings. Hader saved a dozen games that season and regularly worked the 7th/8th inning as well.
Whether he ends up as a starting pitcher or relief pitcher, Braxton Ashcraft could make a significant impact on the Bucs within the next year. The right-hander had an outstanding season in 2023 and put himself back on the map. It should be fun to see what Ashcraft can do next year.