The Pirates have claimed outfielder Ka’ai Tom off waivers from the Athletics and designated fellow outfielder Anthony Alford for assignment in order to clear a spot on the roster, per a club announcement. Tom, the Athletics’ selection in this year’s Rule 5 Draft, was designated for assignment by Oakland earlier this week. He’ll maintain his Rule 5 designation with the Pirates, meaning he cannot be sent to the minors without first clearing waivers and being offered back to his original organization, the Indians.
Tom, 26, went just 1-for-16 in limited action with the A’s, but he forced his way onto their Opening Day roster with a huge spring showing: .310/.412/.552 with a homer, two doubles, a triple and four walks against eight strikeouts through 34 trips to the plate. His last minor league season was similarly encouraging, as he logged a combined .290/.380/.532 in 554 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A, adding 23 homers and five steals.
Tom has never rated as a top prospect, but he has a rock-solid track record spanning his entire minor league career and his days as a star at the University of Kentucky. Following the Rule 5 Draft in December, FanGraphs Eric Longenhagen wrote: “Tom is one of those prospects who makes me wonder, “Are we all idiots?” because he has a consistent track record of above-average offensive performance all the way from college through the upper minors, and yet because he’s a little guy without huge power he is consistently dismissed by scouts.”
The Bucs ought to be able to give Tom plenty of leash to show he has the chops to continue that strong performance in the big leagues. He started just four games with a win-now A’s club, but the Pirates aren’t expecting to win much of anything in 2021 and can afford to give him regular playing time if they choose. Alford and Dustin Fowler had been splitting time in center field for the Pirates, but neither has hit so far, leading to today’s roster shuffle.
Alford, also 26, is a wildly gifted athlete and former two-sport star who didn’t fully commit to baseball until more than two years after he was drafted. He was one of the most touted talents in the 2012 draft but worked out a deal with the Blue Jays that allowed him to play football in college. He continued doing so until Sept. 2014, and in the years since that time he’s battled injuries — most notably wrist surgery and a torn hamstring. He’s still tallied just 117 plate appearances in the Majors since his 2017 big league debut.
Alford ranked among the game’s top 100 prospects from 2016-18 on virtually any publication of note, but his opportunities to this point have been limited. He was 2-for-24 with the Pirates this season, and he carries a career .150/.222/.262 batting line in the Majors. Pittsburgh will have a week to trade him or attempt to pass him through outright waivers. If he clears, the Pirates can keep him in the organization without dedicating a 40-man roster spot to him. He’d then presumably be in line for everyday reps with their Triple-A club once the season gets underway.