Braxton Ashcraft turned 24 last month, meaning he is still young even by baseball standards.
However, Ashcraft’s journey from being the Pittsburgh Pirates’ second-round draft pick in 2018 to being added to the team’s 40-man roster earlier this week has been long and, at times, difficult. It’s the kind of path usually associated with an older player.
Making the big-league roster was big news for the right-hander. Yet it also put Ashcraft in a reflective mood Wednesday when he had a teleconference with the beat writers who cover the Pirates.
“It means so much more because of what I went through,” Ashcraft said. “Not taking away from anyone else’s success and other peoples’ journeys. But going through the injuries and being a higher draft pick and underperforming at the start of my career … taught me a lot of humility.
“I have to attribute where I’m at right now to the people who were around me and helped me get through those things,” Ashcraft said. “The coaches, training staff, fellow players. It takes a community to raise baseball players, kids, whatever you may be doing. But it takes a community to do anything and do it well. I wouldn’t be where I am now or gotten through the things that I did if not for everybody else.”
The Pirates signed Ashcraft to a $1,825,000 bonus after drafting following his graduation from high school in Robinson, Texas, which is located just outside Waco. The recommended slot bonus by MLB was $1,382,400 but the Pirates went over it by nearly a half-million dollars.
Ashcraft looked like a bust during his first three professional seasons with ERAs of 4.58 in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2018, 5.77 at Low-A West Virginia in 2019 and 5.35 for High-A Greensboro in 2021. The 2020 minor-league season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then there were the injuries that led to surgeries in three successive years. He had his shoulder operated on in 2019, a knee repaired the following year and Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery in 2021.
After missing the 2022 season while rehabbing his elbow, Ashcraft went a combined 0-3 with a sparkling 2.39 ERA in 19 starts combined with Low-A Bradenton, Greensboro and Double-A Altoona. The Pirates limited Ashcraft to 52.2 innings and never pitched into the fifth inning while striking out 63 and posting 1.08 WHIP.
Ashcraft, ranked as the Pirates’ No. 9 prospect by PBN, took all the lessons he learned during his time in professional baseball and turned them into action this year.
“I came into pro ball from a real small town in Texas. I was a big fish in a real small pond,” Ashcraft said. “I come into professional baseball and get humbled real quick. Not even through injuries, but performance. Seeing how everybody is as good or better than me. At 18 years old, that’s a tough pill to swallow, and growing up, I never really had anything that took me out of sports. I never had any injuries, I never had any grade things that took me out of sports, and then I have my first injury and it takes me out of the game.
“It’s a real hard thing to deal with. A real hard thing to cope with, in all aspects. I think that’s the biggest deal.”
Ashcraft believes the Tommy John surgery did more than repair his elbow. It also gave him a chance to rehab at TMI, a facility operated by Keith Meister, who is the Texas Rangers team physician, where he had a chance to learn about the art of pitching from experienced players.
“I’m learning more about myself and spending more time around big-league guys,” Ashcraft said. “There’s a lot of good guys with good minds and a lot of time in the big leagues. There’s a lot to learn from up there.”
Ashcraft isn’t a big-league guy just yet and is likely to return to Altoona to start the 2024 season. However, the Pirates showed they believe Ashcraft is a potential major-league pitcher by placing him on the 40-man roster.
“I’m just thankful the Pirates gave me the opportunity to do that with them because I love everybody here,” Ashcraft said.
He will love them even more if he completes his long journey to the majors.