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40 in 40: Cody Bolton keeps climbing

The brutality of life in The Pile

Pittsburgh Pirates v Atlanta Braves Photo by Casey Sykes/Getty Images

Note: Another piece on Jorge Polanco is coming soon, but we didn’t want to rush his 40 in 40 just so it would be up today. I’m confident that Cody Bolton content was equally anticipated.

Littlefinger tells us that the climb is all there is. That’s as true for a fledgling reliever as it is for someone trying to make the most of the chaos in the world. Cody Bolton is a fledgling reliever, and right now, he’s on the bottom of the Pile with a big climb in front of him. By my estimation, there are 13 12 guys who are clearly ahead of him on the bullpen depth chart, maybe more if you count guys on minor-league deals who simply aren’t on the 40-man roster yet.

But that represents an improvement for his situation. He’s climbed his way out of Pittsburgh’s Pile and into Seattle’s, which is definitely a better place to be.

Last season, Bolton made the metaphorical five-and-a-half-hour drive between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh eleven times as he was shuttled between the Pirates and their AAA club. He drove that stretch of I-70 so many times, he's probably got a favorite lunch spot in Colt Emerson’s hometown of Cambridge, Ohio. He had to do it because he couldn’t ever stay in the bigs for long, mostly coming up to fill in when the primary arms were tired. When he was up, batters pummeled his four-seamer/sweeper/changeup mix to the tune of a 6.33 ERA.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Washington Nationals Photo by Jess Rapfogel/Getty Images

And yet, that actually represented an improvement for his situation. It’s not an easy climb out of MiLB, but it’s definitely better to be getting shelled in the majors than the minors.

Bolton only made his MLB debut last season after toiling in the minors since 2017. His minor league stats haven’t been great. Over the past couple seasons in AAA, he walked more than 11% of the batters he faced while striking out less than a quarter of them. His ERA over that time looks better than it should, propped up by having somehow surrendered just 0.44 homers per nine innings, despite a groundball rate under 40%. His 3.38 ERA over that period is belied by his xFIP over 5.00.

And not to beat this framing into the ground or anything, but that represented an improvement for his situation. Better to be struggling in the minors than not pitching at all.

Being on the mound in 2022 had to come as a relief after having lost all of 2021 to a torn meniscus. It’s a major surgery that comes with a 4-6 month recovery time, and Bolton’s came at just the wrong time, right after the minor-league season started in early May.

And you’ll never guess what. That represented an improvement for his situation. Better to be in the rehab program managed by team personnel than out on your own.

Despite having made his way into the Pirates’ top-10 prospects in the runup to 2020, he was left off their 60-man player pool and was not invited to participate at their alternate site, spending that season by himself.

So, look, I’m not going to try to convince you that Cody Bolton’s an exciting player. He’s definitely not someone you’ll stop what you’re doing to watch when he takes the mound in Spring Training games. But the trajectory on his climb has been straight up for several years, and at least that’s something. We can’t forget that lots of successful Mariners relievers of the past eight years have similar stories. And while the chaos of The Pile may be a ladder, when I thought of the words “Bolton” and “Pile,” it wasn’t Littlefinger I thought of first, but a different Game of Thrones reference that came to mind, one that turns out to be a decent metaphor:

The Pile can be brutal and suffocating. Even though the bullpen is a brotherhood, it’s also a merciless game at the bottom—out-pitching the other 40-man depth ultimately means climbing over some bodies who are trying to climb over yours. Honestly, you could think of a worse way to describe it than this image’s source: “The Battle of the Bastards.” But Cody Bolton shouldn’t stop climbing. There’s air up there somewhere.