Ashcraft's rocky road to Bucs' 40-man roster

November 19th, 2023

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When he was a junior in high school, Braxton Ashcraft was a star receiver for Robinson High School in Robinson, Texas, a town of about 12,000 people outside of Waco. He caught 37 touchdown passes in 2017, including seven in one game, which was one shy of the single-game record in Texas preps history. Ashcraft made the tough choice to forgo football in his senior year when Chase Allison, Robinson’s quarterback in '17, graduated.

Around this time of year, when football season kicks back up, Ashcraft begins to miss the game again. But he ultimately chose a different journey, in baseball. And that path hasn’t always been easy.

Moments like Tuesday evening put things in perspective for the former second-round pick in the 2018 MLB Draft. Ashcraft was one of two players the Pirates added to their 40-man roster to protect them from the upcoming Rule 5 Draft, set for Dec. 6, showing that the organization still has sky-high confidence in the right-hander who has been dealt adversity every step of the way so far.

The Pirates' No. 12 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, Ashcraft came into his pro career with a ton of confidence and expectations. He had been dominant in the prep leagues with his 4A high school. As he put it, “I was a big fish in a real small pond.”

Then the small pond became a large lake of talent when he began his first full Minor League season in 2019 at what was then Single-A Short-Season West Virginia.

“I come into professional baseball and get humbled real quick,” Ashcraft said. “… Seeing how everybody is as good or better than me, at 18 years old, that's a tough pill to swallow.”

This part Ashcraft could control, with the help of his coaches: How he learned from the strengths of opposing batters, what pitches he would put an emphasis on and how he could sequence them to get the upper hand once again.

The next challenge, though, was out of his hands.

Toward the end of that 2019 season, a recurring issue that Ashcraft had dealt with since his football days became too much to endure. His left shoulder was separating and causing his arm to go numb. As Ashcraft began to throw with more force than before, it reached the point where he needed a Latarjet procedure to correct the issue.

A Latarjet procedure, in short, goes like this: The surgeon saws off the block of the coracoid process (a bone in the shoulder) where it attaches to the conjoint tendon at the top of the scapula (shoulder blade). Then, they move it in front of the glenoid socket (shoulder socket) and attach the two parts with screws.

It cost Ashcraft a handful of months just as he was trying to get his footing.

Then, during his 2020 work, Ashcraft suffered a torn meniscus that, while not preventing him from pitching for long, was yet another roadblock in a career that had just barely gotten underway.

The next year was the biggest test yet. Ashcraft’s other arm -- his throwing arm -- was the issue this time. Only 10 starts into his first season at High-A Greensboro, he learned he had torn the UCL in his right elbow, and he underwent Tommy John surgery in early August.

Ashcraft missed an entire year. He admits he lost some of the competitive edge that any successful pitcher needs, given how long it had been since he’d faced a batter.

But Ashcraft hardly lost any polish. He returned to the mound in 2023 and made sure the Pirates kept him written in their plans in pen, not pencil. Ashcraft posted a 3.76 ERA in 26 2/3 innings at Greensboro, where the baseball tends to fly, and he was promoted to Double-A Altoona, where he got exactly what he’d been looking for: a challenge.

“I wanted to be challenged by the organization. I wanted to be challenged by the players. I wanted to be challenged by my teammates,” Ashcraft said. “I think those eight starts in Altoona did that for me. It boosted my confidence tremendously.”

Few batters could get hard hits off Ashcraft. He allowed no homers in eight starts at Double-A, recording a 1.35 ERA in 20 innings, with 23 strikeouts and only five walks. He was also teammates and roommates with the Pirates’ other protected player, infielder Tsung-Che Cheng (No. 18 prospect), of whom Ashcraft said, “You look up and he’s on an 18-game hitting streak.”

Any player would have wished for an easy road to the Majors, but Ashcraft has been able to find the silver linings in the grayest of days.

“It means so much more because of what I went through,” Ashcraft said of being this close to the Major Leagues. “Not taking away from anyone else’s success and other people’s journeys, but going through the injuries and being a higher Draft pick and underperforming at the start of my career … going through those taught me a lot of humility.”

Ashcraft is aware that at this point in his career -- 2023 was his fifth full season in pro baseball -- many guys who have been dealt consistent injuries and challenges end up in other places, maybe even in other fields of work.

Not Ashcraft, though. After years of bad breaks, he was dealt a good one.

“At the point I’m at in my career, you’re either [moving] on or trying to find a place where you can fulfill the dreams that you’ve had in terms of being a professional baseball player at the highest level,” Ashcraft said. “I’m just thankful the Pirates gave me the opportunity to do that with them, because I love everybody here.”