The Pittsburgh Pirates added INF Tsung-Che Cheng and RHP Braxton Ashcraft to the 40-man roster yesterday, protecting each player from the upcoming Rule 5 draft.
Cheng and Ashcraft are both among the top ten prospects in the Pirates’ system. Cheng made it to Altoona this year, displaying an advanced hit tool, along with speed and defense up the middle. Ashcraft returned from Tommy John this year, with improved velocity and control at the Double-A level.
Cheng should return to Altoona at the start of 2024, but could make it to the majors by the end of the year as a failsafe for the crowded second base picture. The depth at the top will allow him to develop, but this is a player who naturally develops quickly and doesn’t let pitchers take a single pitch off during games. A promotion to the big leagues in 2024 might be aggressive, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see Cheng getting significant time in the majors during the 2025 season — even if he forces his way into a bench role at the start of his career.
Ashcraft will get a chance to stretch his arm out in 2024, after the Pirates were conservative with his innings this year. He’s got the frame and the stuff to be a multi-inning pitcher, with the upside of an average MLB starter. The Pirates have an easier path to the big leagues for starting pitching, which means Ashcraft could pitch his way to Pittsburgh by the end of 2024.
Had the Pirates not added Cheng and Ashcraft to their 40-man roster, those two players would be available for any team to select in the upcoming Rule 5 draft. Neither would be ready for the majors on Opening Day, but their long-term value would warrant giving them a development year on the bench or in the bullpen. The Pirates just did this with LHP Jose Hernandez last year, who could be in their bullpen mix in 2024 and beyond. They also lost OF/C Blake Sabol to the Giants.
Who Could Be Drafted This Year?
From here, the Pirates have a list of players who can be taken in the Rule 5 draft next month. The most notable names are Matt Gorski and Jase Bowen. I’d also add Aaron Shortridge and Valentin Linarez as sleeper candidates. Carter Bins and Malcom Nunez get honorable mentions for their proximity to the majors, though they’ll likely help the Pirates as depth.
Matt Gorski, CF/1B – Gorski is talented all over the field. He hits for power at the plate, has speed on the bases, and his range and defensive instincts in center field could play in the big leagues. He had a .238 average and a .296 OBP in Double-A, often selling out to a power approach, led by a big leg kick across the plate that helps him rock his momentum back and forth for better reach on outside stuff. Gorski could help another team with speed, defense, and power off the bench. His OBP is likely what will hold him back, and will give him something to work on with Indianapolis this year. Also, defense at first base.
Jase Bowen, CF/2B – I liked the center field defense from Bowen in Greensboro, but that comes with the disclaimer that the space in center field in Greensboro is about the size of my first apartment. Bowen has quick, accurate instincts on the field, and should get tested with routes in Altoona. His offense was .258/.333/.469 this year with Greensboro, with 23 homers and 24 steals in 493 plate appearances. He did even better in the AFL after the season. If a team wanted speed, defense, and power off the bench, Bowen would be a better selection right now than Gorski, despite the proximity to the majors.
Aaron Shortridge, RHP – Shortridge is my sleeper candidate to be taken. He’ll be going into his age-27 season next year, and missed some time with Tommy John around the pandemic. This was his first season pitching with zero restrictions. He responded with a 5.01 ERA in 138.1 innings with Altoona, which doesn’t look great on the surface. The finish to the season from Shortridge was impressive. From July 29th to the end of the season, he had a 3.98 ERA in 54.1 innings between Double-A and one start in Triple-A. He struck out 46 and walked 18. His velocity by the end of the year was sitting 92-94. His approach is to pitch off the fastball, spreading it all over the zone in a way that prevents the hitter from eliminating any areas.
Valentin Linarez, RHP – I was impressed with Linarez late this year with Greensboro. He pitched twice in the same week, showing mid-to-upper 90s velocity with downward sinking action, along with a low-80s slider that generates swing and miss. In his age-23 season, he had a 4.70 ERA in 67 innings in High-A, with walks being his big issue. The week I saw him was his best stretch in August, with five shutout innings in two appearances, nine strikeouts, and one walk. Linarez is unlikely to go straight to the majors with his control issues, but should go to Altoona, and has the stuff to one day pitch in the majors if he can fix the control.
Carter Bins, C – It’s uncommon for catchers to be taken in the Rule 5. Bins has long-term upside as a backup in the majors. This year he could arrive in Pittsburgh as a depth option, if there are injuries behind the plate. Bins does well working with a pitching staff, but also can add some power, including late in games when the minds are tired for most catchers. He should move to Indianapolis to start 2024.
Malcom Nunez, 3B/1B – The Pirates added Nunez in the Jose Quintana trade at the deadline in 2022. He was injured for a long stretch in 2023, and hit .237/.314/.357 in 341 at-bats in Triple-A. Nunez showed stretches of offensive outbursts, but couldn’t sustain those production levels for long periods of time. He’ll be in his age 23 season next year, and could once again provide depth for the infield, with his best path being at first base.
Depth, But Not Draftable
The following players are available for the draft, and in my opinion are the best available remaining talent. All of these guys should be protected from the Triple-A portion of the draft, as they could help the Pirates in the long-term, with some potentially helping in the majors at some point in 2024.
Bullpen Options Who Can Provide the Pirates With Depth, But Aren’t Ready to Be Pitching in the Majors All Year: LHP Cam Alldred, LHP Omar Cruz, RHP J.C. Flowers, RHP Cameron Junker
Upper Level Position Player Options Who Lack The Versatility of Potential That Gorski/Bowen Provide: OF Matt Fraizer, OF Joe Perez, 1B Aaron Shackelford
The Other Good Defensive Catchers Who Make You Realize Carter Bins is Unlikely To Be Selected For Defense Alone: Abrahan Gutierrez, Dylan Shockley
Lower Level Guys Who Have Long-Term Talent, But Lack Experience or Upper Level Challenges: INF Dariel Lopez, RHP Carlos Jimenez, OF Hudson Head, OF Rodolfo Nolasco
Projecting Future Rule 5 Drafts
Next year’s Rule 5 draft is going to be quiet. The players available for the Rule 5 draft next year are the high school players from the 2020 draft, and the college players from the 2021 draft. The Pirates went heavy on prep players for their 2021 draft focus, while they went college heavy in the shortened 2020 draft. There were also only 25 rounds between these two drafts.
Jared Jones is the best talent available to be protected for next year’s draft, though he’ll likely make his MLB debut in 2024, which means he’ll already be on the 40-man roster. RHP Po-Yu Chen and RHP Sean Sullivan are the most likely to enter Ashcraft/Cheng range by the end of the year, with Sullivan in proximity to make the majors in 2024 as depth.
The 2025 draft will be interesting. That will pull from prep players in the 2021 draft (Bubba Chandler, Anthony Solometo, Lonnie White Jr., Owen Kellington), along with college players from the 2022 draft (J.P. Massey, Thomas Harrington, Jack Brannigan, Tres Gonzales, Hunter Barco). Some of those players might make the majors already, but there should be some decisions.
The 2026 draft will start to factor in the international signings from 2022, which was boosted when the Pirates traded for Estuar Suero and Jhonny Severino this past deadline. Yordany De Los Santos is the most notable player from the Pirates’ class that year. That group will include the college players drafted this year (Paul Skenes will already be in the majors, but Mitch Jebb leads the list) along with the prep players from 2022 (2B Termarr Johnson and LHP Michael Kennedy).
Reading Between the Lines
I personally enjoy covering the Rule 5 draft not because of the chance to add and subtract talent, but because of the view it gives us of the system.
Ben Cherington took over as the General Manager in late 2019. He didn’t benefit from the COVID pandemic hitting right after he took over. His rebuild didn’t really start until a year after he took over. That said, we’ve already passed the point where Cherington’s rebuild would reach the majors. Those trades led to Endy Rodriguez, David Bednar, Jack Suwinski, Liover Peguero, Roansy Contreras, and Kyle Nicolas from the current big league roster.
The only players in my current top 30 who were acquired by trades are players who were acquired in trades for players that Ben Cherington signed. Those are examples of Cherington creating recurring value, rather than turning inherited value into future value.
From a future value perspective, we’re starting to see the impact of the drafts under Cherington. This year saw Henry Davis join the above core group, along with Nick Gonzales in a less certain spot with the team, and Carmen Mlodzinski in a bullpen role. I’ll also add that several 2020 picks were traded for MLB help. Jared Jones should arrive in 2024.
Next year’s Rule 5 draft will see the 2021 prep players and the 2022 college players get closer to the mix. The Pirates went heavy on each, so next year’s draft will give the appearance that the Pirates are loaded with talent from their drafting. Looking toward the 2025 Rule 5 draft shows a more normal year. The fact is, next year will be the result of the Pirates going under-slot on Davis to load up on prep talent — only to follow that with a true-value prep pick at the top the following year, leading to a college-heavy draft.
What I’ll be watching for is whether any non-early round picks can emerge. Development is a lot different when you don’t have seven figures to fall back upon if things don’t work out. The ability to always know that a team invested a high draft pick and a high price into you is a comfort that fuels the steep decline of MLB players after these rounds. Everyone else is just trying to take their shot and stand out while fighting through the doubt and uncertainty that hits every player. The best early situation to watch right now is J.P. Massey, the seventh round under-slot pick in 2022 from Minnesota.
We’re about to see how the rebuild grades out, starting in the 2024 season.
SONG OF THE DAY
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.