Pittsburgh Pirates: Cody Bolton’s Potential Future

Right-handed pitching prospect Cody Bolton, who has solely worked as a starter, will start 2021 in the bullpen. What could his future with the Pittsburgh Pirates look like?

Entering the 2021 season Pittsburgh Pirates right-handed pitching prospect Cody Bolton ranked among their top 12 prospects by both FanGraphs (#12) and MLB Pipeline (#10). Since being drafted in the 6th round of the 2017 draft, Bolton has solely pitched out of the rotation. All 39 of his appearances and 171.2 innings in the minor leagues have come as a starting pitcher.

However, starting 2021, the Pittsburgh Piratess will experiment with Bolton out of the bullpen at Double-A. The last time we saw Bolton pitch was in 2019. He started the year at High-A Bradenton where he had an outstanding 1.61 ERA, 1.96 FIP and 0.85 WHIP through 61.2 innings of work.

At High-A Bolton had a solid ground ball rate of 46.7%, which led to an outstanding 0.15 HR/9 rate. Bolton also struck out nearly 30% of all the batters he faced (28.9%) while keeping walk below 7% (5.9%). This led to him getting promoted to Double-A where he struggled heavily.

He only tossed 40 innings but had a 5.85 ERA, 4.67 FIP and 1.32 WHIP. Home runs became an issue for Bolton. His HR/9 skyrocketed to 1.4. Meanwhile, both his walk rate and strikeout rate went in the wrong direction. Bolton walked 9.6% of all the batters he faced while having a sub-20% strikeout rate (19.8%).

Now granted, Bolton had two injury list stints. The first lasted just a week from June 4th to June 11th. However, the second injury led to him missing nearly a month’s worth of time. He was placed on the IL on August 17th but wasn’t activated until September 11th.

Bolton isn’t a hard thrower, but still averages out in the 92-95 MPH range and tops out at 97 MPH. Though he makes up for that, averaging 2450 RPM of spin. His slider is another solid pitch that he’s improved over time. It averaged about 2600 RPM. He also has a two-seam version of his fastball and a changeup. None of his offerings are considered bad either.

FanGraphs projects his fastball and changeup as 50-grade offerings and his slider a 60-grade pitch. Meanwhile, MLB Pipeline has his fastball as a 60-grade offering, his slider at 55, and his change at 50. Bolton is also a pretty big kid. He stands in at 6’3″, 230 pounds. That’s pretty comparable to former Pirate pitcher Joe Musgrove, who weighed in at 6’5″, 230 pounds.

Now the Pittsburgh Pirates are likely going to have to move some of their top starting pitching prospects to the bullpen at some point. When you look throughout their system, one thing they don’t lack is pitching talent. 2019 first-round picks Quinn Priester and Brennan Malone are ranked as the team’s two best starters.

Then there’s flame thrower Tahnaj Thomas. Among the 11 prospects the Pittsburgh Pirates received in the Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell and Joe Musgrove deals, 8 of them were pitchers. Miguel Yajure is ranked the highest among all of them, who was part of the Taillon deal and has an extremely high floor. Eddy Yean is a very high ceiling prospect and the headliner of the Josh Bell trade. Don’t forget they also got back another starting pitching prospect, Wil Crowe, in the Bell trade. Roansy Contreras, another part of the Taillon trade, is Altoona’s ace and being tabbed with their Opening Day start. Drake Fellows and Omar Cruz are two other pitchers the team got in the Musgrove trade.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a ton of young talent they got from last year’s draft. All but one of their draft picks, that being Nick Gonzales, was a pitcher. Nick Garcia, Jared Jones and Carmen Mlodzinski are ranked among the Pirates’ best pitching prospects. Plus, 5th round pick Logan Hofmann ended his college career with 28 straight scoreless innings.

Let’s not forget some of the more under-the-radar names like Austin Roberts, Steven Jennings, Santiago Florez, Michael Burrows or Po-Yu Chen. They also all have the potential to be contributors in the Majors in the next few seasons.

On the Major League roster, JT Brubaker is looking like a potential long-term rotation arm. Mitch Keller is a former top 20 prospect who’s shown flashes of brilliance throughout his short major league career so far but has yet to do it consistently. However, he’s still fairly young.

The Pirates could add a whole bunch more pitching talent this upcoming draft, especially if they use their #1 pick on Vanderbilt ace Jack Leiter. Even if they don’t use the #1 overall selection on Leiter, there’s still a lot of notable pitching talent in the 2021 draft.

There’s no such thing as too much pitching talent. Bolton may not stay in the bullpen permanently, but it’s worth at least getting him some experience there. However, given the amount of talent throughout the farm system, it’s a good idea to at least get him familiar with the idea of being a bullpen arm.

Bullpens are becoming less and less specialized throughout baseball. While there still are guys who pitch in the 9th inning more often than not, and set-up men who pitch the 7th or 8th innings, how they operate are much different than 10-15 years ago.

Bolton’s future may be more of a super utility like role. He’ll see some starts here and there but is still reliable for high-leverage situations out of the bullpen. At the very least, even if he doesn’t see time out of the pen in the major leagues, he’ll at least have some experience operating in such a role so he isn’t thrown into the fire after getting to the Majors.