PITTSBURGH -- Joel Hanrahan, the former Pirates closer turned Minor League pitching coach, worked with Cody Bolton last year with Class A West Virginia. This year, he saw Bolton make the leap from Class A Advanced Bradenton to Double-A Altoona having just turned 21 years old.
Hanrahan likes what he’s seen.
“Bolton, he’s a fun guy to work with. He’s still young, doesn’t have a lot of pitching under his belt. But he’s got the tools to do it,” Hanrahan said last month. “He’s at that point in his career, I think, where he can really pick and choose what he wants to do with hitters. He’s going to have a good future ahead of him, for sure.”
Bolton’s bright future and excellent performance in the Florida State League this season made him MLB Pipeline’s pick for Pirates Pitching Prospect of the Year. First baseman Mason Martin, who slugged 35 homers in 131 games this year between Class A Greensboro and Bradenton, was named Pittsburgh’s Hitting Prospect of the Year.
Each team's Hitting and Pitching Prospects of the Year were chosen by the MLB Pipeline staff. To receive consideration, players must have spent at least half the year in the Minors and appeared on the team's Top 30 Prospects list.
Bolton is the Pirates’ No. 13 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. The Bucs selected him out of Tracy (Calif.) High School in the sixth round of the 2017 Draft, and they’ve been encouraged by his development every step of the way since.
After making only 18 starts across his first two professional seasons, Bolton broke out while pitching for Bradenton this year. The 6-foot-3 starter posted a 1.61 ERA and an 0.86 WHIP while striking out 69 batters and walking only 14 in 61 2/3 innings over 12 starts.
“The biggest thing when I was in Bradenton was just having fun with it, just going out and having fun, being around those guys,” Bolton said last month, shortly after the Pirates shut him down because he reached his innings limit. “I’ve played with them for a couple years now. It’s a really solid team down there. It was just really fun playing with them.”
Bolton throws a four-seam fastball and a two-seamer as well as a changeup and a slider/cutter that he picked up during Spring Training under the tutelage of senior pitching coordinator Scott Mitchell. The coaching staff helped him ditch his old slider, believing it was too easy to pick up out of his hand.
“Power fastball. Power sinker. Changeup is a little firm right now, but the progress that that pitch has made from last year to this year, it became a weapon for him,” Hanrahan said. “He’s got a slider/cutter he developed this year that was able to miss barrels, strike guys out, get quick outs if he wanted to.”
In late June, the Pirates promoted Bolton to Altoona. He immediately noticed how much more disciplined and selective Double-A hitters were, and he wound up recording a 5.85 ERA in nine starts. He will likely return to Altoona to start next season.
At some point next year, Bolton could get a Double-A teammate in Martin, the Pirates’ No. 19 prospect. The 20-year-old, a 17th-round Draft pick in 2017, began the season with Greensboro before being promoted to Bradenton in early July.
Martin batted .307 with a 1.087 OPS and 11 homers as an 18-year-old debuting in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2017. He struggled last season, slashing just .220/.336/.386 with 149 strikeouts in 104 games. But he bounced back in a big way this year, batting .254 with a .908 OPS, 35 homers and 129 RBIs between two levels.
Strikeouts remain an issue for Martin, as he whiffed 168 times in 556 plate appearances. But the Bucs believe the first baseman’s power is real -- and that slugging potential alone makes him a prospect to watch moving forward.
“We love the power. We love the hard work that this young man has put in on and off the field. He’s continued to grow, to get to the power more consistently,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “He has high-end exit velocity. He can hit the ball hard. We’re working on getting him to hit it more frequently.
“There are some really positive signs on and off the field for this young man to become more than just a one-dimensional power hitter. He wants to become a good hitter who has that power. He wants to become a good defender, and he’s worked hard to continue to be a good teammate.”