With the 55th overall pick in this year’s MLB Draft, the Milwaukee Brewers chose Cal Poly Pomona (D-II) right hander Cody Ponce. The 21 year old could have been a first round talent based off his excellent first two seasons, but a sore shoulder cost him some time in the spring and lowered his draft stock a bit. Ponce started the season in Helena but was promoted to the low-A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers soon after, where he quickly began to show off the skills that could help him become a front of the line pitcher in the Brewers starting rotation before too long.
If you followed along with RtB’s farm reports throughout the season, you’re probably already familiar with some of Ponce’s work. In 46.0 innings in Appleton, the 6’6″ Ponce put up a 2.15 ERA/2.76 FIP with 36 strikeouts against just nine walks. He allowed only one home run all season long, keeping his infielders busy with a 55% ground ball rate. I wrote after he was drafted that Ponce could rise through the system quickly based on his makeup and strong collegiate career, but since then he’s raised his ceiling even higher.
According to MLB.com‘s profile, the knock on Ponce coming out of college was that even though he can hit 98 MPH with his fastball, it tended to be straight and become hittable. Currently at the Brewers Fall Instructs in Arizona, Ponce has shown that he’s worked to remove that flaw from his game. Scout Chris Kusiolek saw Cody in his most recent action, and its fair to say he came away impressed. Kusiolek posted a video to his Twitter account of Ponce pitching to Dodgers All-Star Yasiel Puig (on rehab assignment) and blowing him away with his heater. Ponce’s fastball now has some cut action to it, breaking away from a right handed hitter. Based on his results from this season, he’s already clearly capable of generating an above average amount of ground balls.
Kusiolek also noted that Ponce flashed a plus changeup that sat in the 82-85 MPH range (which would be a significant velocity drop from his fastball) and a slider with plus potential that sat between 86-90 with short vertical depth. In their pre-draft profile of Ponce, SB Nation’s Crawfish Boxes expressed that Ponce does a good job repeating his delivery and has smooth arm action. He showed excellent command in college and carried that over to the pros, walking just 4.8% of hitters he faced in Appleton this season. His strikeout rate of 19.8% would’ve ranked 12th in the Midwest League if he had thrown enough innings to qualify, and that total should continue to climb as he refines his secondary offerings.
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Weighing in at 240 pounds, Ponce has the build to be a workhouse starter during his major league career. He was already built up to nearly 115 innings pitched between college and the pros this year, and should be mostly unencumbered by innings limits as he progresses through the system. He told the Appleton Post-Crescent that his shoulder injury earlier this season helped him realize what he needed to do to improve his strength and conditioning to help his long term health outlook, calling the injury a “blessing in disguise” for his career.
Ponce possesses a tireless work ethic, which will serve him well throughout his development process. According to the above mentioned article, Cody’s mantra is “just keep working. Don’t stop no matter where you are at. There’s always going to be someone behind you coming up,” something he took from his college coach. Ponce has praised the Brewers organization and development staff, and considers himself lucky to have been drafted by the organization and receive such a great opportunity.
The Brewers have long been known as an organization that has struggled to develop pitching, but that narrative has already started changing. The current major league rotation is comprised of six rookies, including Jorge Lopez, who won his major league debut last night. The minor league system is also littered with pitching talent, but Cody Ponce looks like he could have the highest upside of them all. Smart, humble, and hard working, Ponce has shown maturity beyond his years and has the mental makeup to become a major league pitcher. Combine that with his physical tools and skills on the mound, and the Brewers could have themselves a front-line starter at the major league level. Ponce is looking like someone who could become a legitimate number two starter in the big leagues, and perhaps even develop into the “homegrown ace” that Milwaukee has lacked since the heyday of Ben Sheets. Cody Ponce should start finding himself on national top prospect lists before long, and in a couple more years he could become the guy getting the ball in Game 1 the next time the Milwaukee Brewers find themselves in the playoffs.