While not as flashy as the glitz of the awards season and the buzz of the Winter Meetings, the deadline to add players to the 40-man roster ahead of the Rule 5 Draft is an important part of the offseason for a young club like the Pirates. There are only so many 40-man spots they can give to prospects who they see as potential pieces of their long-term plan.
Here’s who they protected ahead of Tuesday’s 6 p.m. ET cutoff, as well as a few unprotected top prospects who have skill sets that could be intriguing for the Rule 5 Draft on Dec. 6.
WHO THEY PROTECTED
RHP Braxton Ashcraft (No. 12 prospect per MLB Pipeline)
This was probably the easiest decision of the bunch for Pittsburgh. Though Ashcraft didn’t pitch as much in 2023 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in ‘22, his arsenal was too good to pass up on shielding from other teams. He has a fastball that touched 97 mph last season with life. His upper-80s slider has a unique look. Those two pitches alone would make him worth a look in a rebuilding team’s bullpen. But he also has a solid curveball with high spin rates and will throw an occasional changeup, helping to make him a starting candidate in the long term.
I wouldn’t expect Ashcraft to be on the Pirates early in the 2024 season, despite the state of their rotation at the Major League level, given his workload considerations and that he hasn’t reached Triple-A yet. But if he builds on what he flashed in ‘23, he will have a case later in the season.
SS Tsung-Che Cheng (No. 18)
Cheng has a high ceiling, even if it didn’t translate to immediate results this season at Double-A, where he hit .251 with a .656 OPS in 66 games. But he was on fire at High-A Greensboro, hitting .308 and getting on base at a .406 clip with 30 extra-base hits in 57 games.
Cheng, who went 5-for-15 as the leadoff man for Chinese Taipei in the 2023 World Baseball Classic, also boasts a good running game. He swiped 26 bases last season after stealing 33 in ‘22, and that would make him a valuable bench piece on an MLB team hoping to stash him on the roster to retain his rights.