Pittsburgh Pirates pitching prospect Cody Bolton will be Rule 5 eligible once again this off-season, so what options does the team have with him?
The Pittsburgh Pirates have a handful of players who need a 40-man roster spot in preparation for the Rule 5 Draft. Endy Rodriguez, Mike Burrows, and Malcom Nuñez are almost guaranteed to get 40-man spots. Jared Triolo, Matt Gorski, and Blake Sabol have a solid chance to lock down a roster spot. But one of the players the Pirates will need to make a decision on is Cody Bolton.
The Pirates drafted Cody Bolton in the sixth round of the 2017 draft. Bolton had some good numbers in 2017 and 2018, but his 2019 season is what put him on some prospect maps. Through 101.2 innings, Bolton owned a quality 3.28 ERA, 3.03 FIP, and 1.04 WHIP. Bolton struck out just over a quarter of the batters he faced with a 25.1% strikeout rate while only allowing a free pass 7.4% of the time. But Bolton’s strong suit was preventing home runs, having a .62 HR/9 rate.
Although Bolton struggled in the second half with Triple-A Indy and ran into some injuries, the right-hander was then considered one of the Pirates’ best pitching prospects. While this was before the arrival of guys like Bubba Chandler, Roansy Contreras, Anthony Solometo, and Jared Jones, MLB Pipeline and FanGraphs ranked Bolton in the Pirates’ top 10 prospects.
Bolton didn’t play in 2020, nor did any minor leaguer, but he also did not play in 2021. He missed the entire campaign after suffering a meniscus tear. So going into the 2022 season, there were plenty of questions about whether Bolton was still a legitimate prospect the Pirates could consider a potential part of their future, and he rebounded pretty well.
The right-hander pitched the entire year with Triple-A Indy, working to the tune of a 3.09 ERA, 3.81 FIP, and 1.28 WHIP through 75.2 innings of work. Along with those solid numbers, Bolton struck out batters at a 25.4% rate and allowed just four baseballs to leave the ballpark. The long two-year layoff didn’t seem to affect Bolton’s velocity as he came back working in the 92-94 MPH range, which is about where he was pre-2020.
But there definitely were some questions raised. The first was his command. Bolton walked batters at a 12.4% rate. Bolton was in the bottom 100 of minor league pitchers in terms of walk rate at no. 98. That’s very worrisome, given that he never posted a walk rate above 7.5% in any of his prior campaigns. The other was his poor 4.85 xFIP. While Bolton may have had an HR/9 rate below .50, he had a higher flyball rate than ground ball rate. He had a 5.1% HR/FB ratio, and while he’s never been a strong ground ball pitcher, his HR/FB ratio is nearly 3% lower than his 2017-2019 average.
Despite those red flags, Bolton still remains an important question that needs to be answered this winter. Bolton is Rule 5 eligible for the second year in a row. Unlike the last offseason, he wasn’t coming off a relatively solid year. So what routes are available for the Bucs to take with the pitching prospect?
The Pirates could risk leaving him exposed to the draft. Bolton’s underlying numbers certainly carry some risk, and he isn’t a high-ceiling type of pitcher, which is usually taken in the draft over a pitcher like Bolton. But the chances that another team would pick up Bolton are decent. He’s still an MLB-ready arm who had a good enough season at Triple-A to warrant a selection.
The next option is to protect Bolton and add him to the 40-man roster. There are plenty of players the Pirates could release or DFA to make room. Arms like Peter Solomon, Eric Stout, Yohan Ramirez, Jeremy Beasley, Beau Sulser, and Junior Fernandez are not going to last throughout the off-season, let alone a 40-man roster crunch. Other depth players like Ali Sanchez, Nick Mears, and Zack Collins are far from guaranteed a spot.
The Pittsburgh Pirates could always make more room by trading Chase De Jong or Kevin Newman and non-tendering Duane Underwood Jr. Even with the myriad of other prospects the Pirates need to add, they could probably find a roster spot for Bolton somewhere.
The third option is to trade him. While Bolton may not be the most valuable prospect the Pirates have, they could use him to acquire a potential major league player. The Pirates need bullpen help, and Bolton could help them net a reliever. They also need help at first base, and a team with an excess of first base depth might be willing to trade one of their players in exchange for Bolton.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t plan on protecting Bolton from the Rule 5 Draft, they should see if they can trade him. The Pirates could lose him for nothing, so trying to get a prospect who could either make next season’s Opening Day roster or is not Rule 5 eligible yet is a preferable alternative.