Pittsburgh Pirates: What is in Cody Ponce’s Future

PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 06: Cody Ponce #60 of the Pittsburgh Pirates in action during the game against the Minnesota Twins at PNC Park on August 6, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - AUGUST 06: Cody Ponce #60 of the Pittsburgh Pirates in action during the game against the Minnesota Twins at PNC Park on August 6, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) /

Pitcher Cody Ponce has served multiple roles in his pro career. So, what role could he have with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the future?

Cody Ponce was outstanding in his first MLB start for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He shut out a St. Louis Cardinals lineup that included Paul DeJong, Paul Goldschmidt, right-handed pitcher killer Brad Miller, and top 10 prospect Dylan Carlson though 5.2 innings. His next start was against another division rival in the Cincinnati Reds, but was not as effective.

Against the Reds, Ponce only went 4 innings and allowed three earned runs on two home runs. However, he did strikeout four and only allowed one to reach base via free pass. Throughout the minors, he’s worked multiple different roles. Everything from a set-up arm to a starter. So what’s in this right hander’s future?

Ponce was originally drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2nd round of the 2015 MLB Draft. The righty served as a swing man in his first pro season, pitching in 14 games and starting nine. All told, he had 51 innings under his belt pitching to the tune of a 2.29 ERA, a FIP of just 2.43 and a 1.09 WHIP. Ponce only racked up a 19.4% strikeout rate, but walked just 10 batters, and allowed just one home run.

Though Ponce struggled in 2016, he returned in 2017 to put up another pretty solid year. He pitched a total of 137.2 innings between High-A and Double-A, putting together a 3.14 ERA, 3.77 FIP and 1.23 WHIP. Again, Ponce wasn’t a big strikeout pitcher, having just 103 strikeouts against the 575 batters he faced, but put up a 5.2% walk rate. While he did have a 0.9 HR/9, which was much higher than it was in 2015, it was still a manageable number. By the end of the year, MLB Pipeline ranked him as their 20th best prospect, and 14th by FanGraphs.

In 2018, Ponce started out the year in the rotation with the Brew Crew’s Double-A affiliate but struggled before being moved to the pen. This was the worst year of Ponce’s young career as he had a 4.36 ERA, 4.30 FIP, and 1.284 WHIP across 95 innings of work. Though he did have a career high strikeout rate of 21.6%, he also had a career high walk rate of 8.3%. However, eight of the 46 earned runs he surrendered came in one start, so the numbers might be a bit skewed by one awful game.

So going into 2019, Ponce was slated to be a relief pitching prospect for the Brewers. He continued to be a weapon for their Double-A team out of the bullpen putting up a 3.29 ERA, 2.59 FIP and 1.17 WHIP. Ponce saw his strikeout rate skyrocket to 27.5%, and his walk rate decrease to just 4.3%, the first time since 2017 he saw it dip below 5%. That, combined with the fact that he only allowed a single home run, and put up a 2.88 xFIP is probably why the Pittsburgh Pirates were attracted to the righty.

That’s when the Pittsburgh Pirates decided to trade for Ponce for Jordan Lyles. The Pittsburgh Pirates moved Ponce back into the starting rotation, and promoted him to Triple-A Indianapolis. While it was only 18.2 innings and four starts, he struggled giving up 11 earned runs, and four home runs. His walk rate nearly doubled from pre-trade to 8.5%, but still had a 24.4% strikeout percentage.

Ponce did show some potential as a starter once again, this time in the Arizona Fall League. Through 23 innings and five starts, he only allowed six earned runs, surrendered only two long balls, racked up 27 strikeouts and walk four batters.

Ponce has seen his role change multiple times throughout his pro career so far. He started out as a swing man, moved to the rotation full-time, then moved back to the ‘pen before the Pittsburgh Pirates tried him out as a starter again.

Ponce definitely has the stuff to be an effective MLB pitcher. He has two, 60 future grade pitches per FanGraphs, with his fastball and cutter. His cutter, at the major league level, has so far come in with an impressive 2537 RPM. His fastball is not far behind with a 2503 RPM. He also has a third average pitcher with his curveball that comes in with a future 50 grade, and change up with a future 45 grade. So far at the MLB level, he’s mainly used his cutter, curve and fastball, and only occasionally throwing his change up, and even a sinker. I mean, just look at these numbers The Fort, Michael McKenry pointed out:

Ponce has the stuff, but he’s served so many different roles. We first have to look at where the Pirates’ rotation could be in the next few years.

Right now, the Pittsburgh Pirates have a lot of notable guys in their system. Mitch Keller definitely has the stuff to be an ace. Tahnaj Thomas ranks as the 78th best prospect in baseball. Brennan Malone has four pitches that are projected to be average or better, which is something you don’t often see a guy start out with. Quinn Priester was considered one of the best prep-arms in the 2019 draft, along with Brennan Malone. Cody Bolton is considered a top 10 organizational prospect, and Carmen Mlodzinski was one of the Pittsburgh Pirates most recent highly rate draft selections.

That’s also not considering guys like 2019 International signee Cristophor Cruz, Travis MacGregor, Santiago Florez, Nick Garcia, Steven Jennings, Braxton Ashcraft, or JT Brubaker, another guy who’s role could be decided by who pans out. There’s also the possibility the Pittsburgh Pirates extend someone like Joe Musgrove, Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, or Chad Kuhl. After all, the Pirates were exploring potential extensions before everything went into shutdown, and all transactions talks were put on hold.

The Pirates have a lot of prospects for the rotation, and that’s not considering if they extend any of their current rotation options or sign/acquire someone from free agency or through trade. Finding a rotation spot for Cody Ponce might be hard. But they also have a lot of prospects in the bullpen too. Though Blake Cederlind is probably the most popular Pirates’ relief prospect, but he isn’t the highest ranked. That title would belong to Nick Mears. Yerry De Los Santos had an outstanding breakout season in 2019, putting him on the prospect radar. Geoff Hartlieb has looked great so far this year, and has the stuff to be a real weapon. The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Jack Hartman as a potential long term bullpen piece as well. Wilkin Ramos was acquired last year by the Pirates, who could eventually factor into their bullpen plans. While Michael Burrows is a starter, he projects as a relief pitcher, adding yet another arm to the Pirates’ potential bullpen options down the line.

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So where does this leave Ponce? You can always use a good pitcher, especially one who can fill multiple holes. Ponce’s experience in so many different roles gives you flexibility with him, sort of like a pitching version of Josh Harrison or Sean Rodriguez.

Need a spot start? Ponce has done it. Starter gets injured or hit early on, or need a relief pitcher in extras to give you 3 or 4 innings? Ponce could easily be an effective long-relief guy. Maybe you want to give your set-up man a day off, or one of your late-inning arms gets injured. Ponce has shown he can handle higher leverage moments. A guy like that could be extremely valuable, especially if you are making a playoff run. Injuries happen throughout a season, and you’re going to need guys to fill in. With a guy like Ponce, you never really have to worry about throwing him in different roles since he probably already has experience in that role.