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.
WHO THEY LEFT UNPROTECTED
OF Matt Gorski (No. 20)
Gorski showed a flash of his offensive potential in 2022, when he was named the Willie Stargell Slugger of the Year in the Pirates’ farm system after mashing a career-best 24 homers in 81 games while climbing to Triple-A. Seventeen of those homers came at High-A Greensboro, which arguably has the most hitter-friendly park in the Bucs’ system. But Gorski also hit 17 in 93 games at Double-A Altoona this season despite diminished rates of hitting and reaching base safely from ‘22.
1B/3B Malcom Nuñez (No. 23)
Nuñez has above-average raw power, but he has yet to fully polish it and turn it into consistent damage. In 2022, he hit 17 homers in 85 games for Double-A Springfield before he was acquired by the Pirates from the Cardinals in the José Quintana trade; Nuñez has hit 14 in 112 games since, and each of his 2023 batting line numbers were the lowest he’s posted in the past three seasons. Another thing I see potentially preventing Nuñez from being taken is that he’s not a good fit as a pinch-runner, with well below-average speed.
OF/1B Jase Bowen (No. 27)
Bowen has gotten better with the bat every year since being taken in the 11th round of the 2019 Draft, and his Arizona Fall League experience this year only boosted his stock. He hit .290 with an .855 OPS and 11 extra-base hits in 29 games for the Salt River Rafters after hitting a career-best 23 homers in 2023 at High-A Greensboro. Bowen has some swing and miss to his game -- he’s had more than 100 strikeouts in each of the past three Minor League seasons -- but he’s got solid tools across the board.