Back in December when I was working for a now defunct Pirates website my main focus was prospects, which has always been a passion of mine. Due to this fondness of players who are constantly fighting to make their Major League Baseball games come true, I often become defensive of them when fans and others criticize a trade by directing these frustrations on the guys who ends up on their teams. I spoke about how people regularly jump to blame this guy, call him a bum or say that he was not worth the trade; especially when he is an unknown prospect and the player you are letting go is a known commodity.
The specific scenario I used in my article involved the player that the Pittsburgh Pirates received in their trade of Jordan Lyles to the Milwaukee Brewers, 25-year old AA pitcher Cody. When he arrived in Altoona the hill he had to climb was already high enough, but of course it turned into a mountain after Lyles went on to have a 7-1 record, a 2.45 ERA and a 1.108 WHIP with 56 Strike Outs in his final 11 appearances for the Brew Crew in 2019. I went on the discuss that this mountain could be one Cody Ponce may never be able to fully climb, but I also encouraged people to not throw in the towel/call him a bum/blame the trade on him just yet.
By now we all probably know how Cody Ponce got here or at least the last part of his journey. However, I would also like to take a look back on where he has been. The Milwaukee Brewers chose Cody Ponce, a 6’5 240 pound junior righty starter out of California Polytechnic State University, in the 2nd Round (55th Player Overall) of the 2015 MLB June Amateur Draft. During his Junior season at Cal Poly Ponoma, Ponce posted a 5-3 record, a 1.44 ERA and 1.091 WHIP with 67 Ks in 62.1 Innings. Based on this impressive resume, as well as stint in the Cape Cod League in 2014, Ponce earned a $1,108,000 bonus upon signing with the Brewers. Upon being drafted he was sent to the Helena Brewers (Milwaukee’s Rookie League Affiliate) of the Pioneer League. He only stayed there for 2 starts and 5 innings of work before earning a quick promotion to the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Milwaukee’s Low A Affiliate) of the Midwest League, where remained for the rest of the season.
In his first professional season, Ponce had a 2.29 ERA, a 1.098 WHIP and 40K/9BB. Due to this success he started out the next season in the Florida State League, with the Brevard County Manatees (Milwaukee’s High A Affiliate through 2016). Unfortunately for him, this year did not go as well or as smoothly as the last. He started the season by suffering a right forearm strain and never regained his effectiveness when he finally did get back on the mound around 2 months later. He finished the season with a 5.25 ERA and a 1.400 WHIP and earned another turn in with Milwaukee’s High A Affiliate to start the 2017 season, this time in the Carolina League with the Carolina Mudcats. He performed much better this time around, with a 3.38 ERA and a 1.292 WHIP, eventually earning a promotion to the Biloxi Shuckers (Milwaukee’s AA Affiliate) in the Southern League. He built upon his strong season with the Mudcats and in 3 games with the Shuckers only allowed 3 Earned Runs in 17.2 Innings.
Prior to the 2018 season Ponce reached his highest spot on the Brewers MiLB Pipeline Top 30 Prospects, landing at #17. He also started his year in Biloxi, which had to be kind of a disappointment. He tried to make the best of his situation but struggled off and on for the majority of the year, while remaining with the Shuckers this entire time. He was even transitioned into the bullpen, where they thought he would be more effective. For the season he had a below average 4.36 ERA, a 1.284 WHIP and 88 Ks in 95 innings, but also 11 HBP (Hit by Pitches) and 34 Walks. In 2019 he would once again start the year in AA, in Biloxi and with the Shuckers, but this year was going to be a little different. For starters, after being a starter his entire life he was officially transitioned into the bull pen as a reliever and found success again. Through his first 27 appearances of the season he posted a 3.29 ERA, a 1.174 WHIP and 44 Ks in 38.1 innings. Then came the trade. On July 29, 2019 Cody Ponce was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Jordan Lyles.
On August 1st he was assigned to the Altoona Curve (Pittsburgh’s AA Affiliate) of the Eastern League and the judgement by Pirates’ fans began. Ponce was in Altoona for all of three appearances and 6 innings. He did have 6 Ks and a .667 WHIP during that time, but it is such a small sample size it is almost forgettable. From there he was promoted to the Indianapolis Indians (Pittsburgh’s AAA Affiliate) of the International League. In 18.2 innings and 4 appearances as a starter, something he hadn’t done consistently since the middle of 2018 and hadn’t done exceptionally well at since at least 2017, Ponce had a 5.30 ERA and a 1.339 WHIP, but did manage 20 K’s.
At the end of the season he was assigned to the Peoria Javelina’s of Arizona Fall League, where he once again remained a starter. In 5 starts he put up an impressive 2.35 ERA, a decent 1.261 WHIP and had 27 K’s in 23 innings. Not bad at all for a mostly hitter-friendly league. Immediately following the Fall League Season, Ponce went on to start 3 games for Team USA in the Premier12, including the Bronze Medal Game against Mexico. In these 3 starts he had a 2.03 ERA and 11 Ks in 13 innings, including 6 in 5 innings in the game against Mexico.
At the beginning of the season, the big question concerning Cody Ponce was, where does he go from here? We knew he would be at Spring Training as he was added to the Pirates’ 40-man roster on November 20, 2019 to protect him from eligibility in the Rule 5 Draft over the Winter Meetings. However, it was not known at the time if the new regime under Ben Cherington saw Ponce as a starter or a reliever. Unfortunately as baseball was shutdown we would have to wait for the answers to these questions. When it finally resumed at the end of July, Cody was optioned to the alternate training site in Altoona.
On August 2nd the Pirates recalled Ponce from Altoona and immediately put him to work against the Chicago Cubs. Unfortunately he would earn the loss in this game in spite of only pitching 1/3 of an inning, giving up a hit and a run. His second appearance would come a few days later versus the Minnesota Twins, where he would pitch 3 innings of relief as an impromptu piggyback for JT Brubaker. In this outing he allowed 2 solo home runs and walked one, but also struck out 3 batters. He was eventually optioned back to the alternate site on August 16th.
Then a couple of days Cody was recalled once again, this time for a spot start in the second game of a double header with St. Louis. Needless to say he exceeded the expectations of many by lasting 5 2/3 innings, spreading out 5 hits, striking out 2 and not allowing a run. In the process he earned his first big league win and had people declaring that the Pirates has won the Jordan Lyles Trade. I really don’t know if they were being serious or not, but they are right. Ponce has a plus Fastball (60/60 grade), a plus Cutter (55/60 grade) and an average Curveball (50/50), with average Command (50/50), to go along with a lot of potential. And even though he was sent down almost immediately, I don’t think it will be too long before we see this big right hander back up at the Major League Level because this once unknown prospect from the Jordan Lyles trade has earned it.