A mid-tier prospect doesn’t mean that these names are bad or unworthy of future success. Even the best teams can’t have five aces. Most of these names project as #3-#5 starters. However, that also doesn’t mean none could rise above expectations and become something greater.
Hunter Barco may have risen enough already to put himself into top prospect status had it not been for his late start to the 2023 season. Barco underwent Tommy John surgery in May of 2022 when at the time he had a 2.50 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 34.3% strikeout rate, and 5.5% walk rate for the University of Florida. The Pirates took Barco in the second round, and he’s only just returned to action over this past month. Barco pitched 7.2 innings at the Florida Complex League, allowing just one earned run, walking two, and striking out nine before his recent promotion to Low-A Bradenton.
Barco sits in the low-90s and pairs that with a good slider. His third offering is a changeup. Overall, Barco can put his offerings where he wants in the strike zone. However, Barco also has some deception in his delivery. It’s a crossfire delivery with a low arm slot, which further helps his stuff play up.
Jackson Wolf is one of the newest members of the Pirates. A fourth-round pick by the San Diego Padres in 2021, Wolf has had a quality 2023 season prior to being traded to the Bucs for Rich Hill and Ji Man Choi. In 88.1 innings, Wolf has a 4.08 ERA, 3.86 FIP, and 1.09 WHIP for the Padres’ Double-A affiliate. This also includes a strong 29.8% strikeout rate and 6.3% walk rate. The only number on his stat line that’s not great is his 1.22 HR/9 rate. Wolf made his Pirate organizational debut on Sunday, allowing just 1 earned run in 4.2 innings pitched at Double-A Altoona.
Wolf is a soft-tosser, averaging 88-90 MPH. While his four-seamer does not have any plus qualities to it, it does play well off his above-average slider and curveball. He also throws a changeup, albeit mostly to just opposite handed opponents. Wolf has shown improved control this season, as he’s cut his walk rate down. He also throws with a side-arm arm slot.
One of the Pirates’ 2020-2021 international signings was right-handed Taiwanese pitcher Po-Yu Chen. Chen has steadily worked his way up through the Pirate system and is currently residing at Greensboro where he has a solid 4.00 ERA and 1.29 WHIP, but a 5.24 FIP. Chen does have a decent 23.8% strikeout as well as an 8.4% walk rate. But home runs have given him some trouble with a 1.55 HR/9. Some of that can be attributed to Greensboro’s home run friendliness. Plus, he’s been very good since May, owning a 3.05 ERA, 4.85 FIP, and 1.21 WHIP over his last 79.2 innings.
Chen only sits in the low-90s, typically sitting 91-94 MPH. He’ll also throw a slider and a curveball, but his best offering is a splitter that has the potential to be a plus offering. His other stuff sits at a below-average to average level, though he has shown good command over all of his stuff. With Chen’s recent success, he could very well get moved up to Altoona within the next week or two.
It’s been a rough year for Kyle Nicolas, and an extremely disappointing follow up after a solid, and even promising 2022 campaign. Nicolas owns a 5.99 ERA, 5.01 FIP, and 1.71 WHIP. Although he has a strikeout rate of 26.1%, it’s about the only positive you can draw from his year. He also has a 1.47 HR/9 and 12.3% walk rate. Nicolas was promoted to Triple-A earlier this year, but it’s resulted in an ERA over 9.00 (9.35).
While it’s been a rough go of things for Nicolas, he still throws a good fastball, as well as a good slider. There were always questions as to whether or not he would need to move to the bullpen long-term, and this might be it. His curveball was average at best and he barely had a change-up. Plus so-so command compounded the lack of an above-average third offering. We’ll see how the Pirates move forward with Kyle Nicolas.
Braxton Ashcraft was a second-round pick in 2018, but this is the first time he’s getting an extended look as a professional. Ashcraft played at short-season levels in 2018-2019, didn’t pitch in 2020 because of the canceled season, then pitched less than 50 IP in 2021 before undergoing Tommy John surgery, which knocked him out of 2022 as well. Regardless, he’s returned strong, working to a 2.54 ERA, 2.87 FIP, and 1.13 WHIP. The right-hander has struck out nearly 30% of opponents (29.7%), while keeping a strong 5.4% walk rate, and 0.72 HR/9.
Ashcraft is now working in the upper-90s with spin on his four-seam fastball. He’ll also complement that pitch with a slider and curveball, which are about average offerings. If Ashcraft has such a good fastball, a solid curveball and slider to complement it, and a strong walk rate, then why isn’t he at least a borderline top-100 prospect? Well he is still recovering to some degree. The Pirates have yet to use Ashcraft as a typical starter, giving him less than five innings in all of his outings. Regardless of if he ends up as a starting or relief pitcher, he is still a prospect to watch.