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Is Nationals' prospect A.J. Cole ready for the next step?

Washington Nationals' starter A.J. Cole finished the 2014 campaign at Triple-A Syracuse after dominating Double-A hitting. Will the 2010 4th Round pick make his MLB debut at some point in 2015? Is the soon-to-turn 23-year-old ready for the majors?

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"For me, he's got the ultimate pitcher's body," first-year skipper Matt Williams told reporters last Spring after watching Washington Nationals' prospect A.J. Cole pitch.

"It's long and then he gets out front and the ball explodes out of his hand. I like it."

Cole, 22, held opposing hitters to a .200 BAA over 6 ⅔ IP in Grapefruit League action last year.

Washington's 2010 4th Round pick, who was traded to the Oakland Athletics in the Gio Gonzalez deal in 2011 and reacquired by the Nationals in the Michael Morse trade in 2013, started the 2014 season at Double-A Harrisburg in the Nats' system after finishing the previous year with seven starts for the Senators, over which he was (4-2) with a 2.18 ERA, a 2.56 FIP, 10 walks (1.99 BB/9) and 49 Ks (9.73 K/9) in 45 ⅓ IP.

"For me, he's got the ultimate pitcher's body. It's long and then he gets out front and the ball explodes out of his hand." - Matt Williams on A.J. Cole this spring

Harrisburg Senators radio broadcaster Terry Byrom and PennLive.com's Senators beat writer, Geoff Morrow, talked about Cole this past May for an article that ran on MASN's Nationals Buzz in which we identified the 6'5'' right-hander as the "next big thing" in the Nats' system.

"He has [such] a nice controlled, slow, windup that the ball jumps on the hitter and 90 looks 95," Byrom said in an email exchange. "His breaking pitch is improving with each start. He always appears in control, never rattled, very confident in his abilities on the mound."

Morrow was impressed with Cole's ability to dominate Double-A Eastern League hitters while working mostly with a fastball, change and breaking ball that he too saw as a work in progress.

"The fact that he can power through some talented EL offenses with just his fastball and changeup predicts a solid future with the Nats," Morrow said.

"Once he gets comfortable with the breaking ball, though, Cole has the potential to be the next dynamite Nationals' starter."

Cole made 14 starts at Double-A in 2014, going (6-3) with a 2.92 ERA, 2.58 FIP, 15 walks (1.90 BB/9) and 61 Ks (7.73 K/9) in 71 IP.

His fifth minor league season ended with 11 outings at Triple-A Syracuse in which Cole was (7-0) with a 3.43 ERA, a 4.48 FIP, 17 walks (2.43 BB/9) and 50 Ks (7.14 K/9) in 63 IP.

The Nationals ended Cole's 2014 campaign in late August, with Assistant GM Doug Harris telling Syracuse.com's Lindsay Kramer at the time that the organization decided the right-hander had thrown enough, stressing that there was no injury issue for the pitcher widely-regarded as the second-best righty in the system.

"'He's maximized his pitches,'" Harris said. "'We're going to shut him down. We go into these things with certain parameters. But it's also what the eye test tells us.'"

In an article by nationals.com's Bill Ladson this week, Harris told the MLB.com reporter that Cole was close to major league-ready, but needed to continue to work on his breaking ball.

"'He has great command of his fastball, he can utilize his changeup at any count, he has learned how and when to use his curveball,' Harris said. 'The continuation of his slider is probably the final step for him.'"

Cole landed at no.2 on the list of the Nationals' Top 10 prospects released by Baseball Prospectus last week, behind only Lucas Giolito among Nats' starters. He's no.2 behind Giolito on MLB.com's list of the Nationals' Top 20 and figures to repeat as the no.2 prospect on Baseball America's list of the Nats' Top 10 Prospects when it's published on December 18th.

BA's Aaron Fitt wrote last winter that in 2013, "Cole thrived in his return to the organization and established himself as one of Washington’s top prospects," positioning himself as one of a few members of the organization who, "... could contribute in Washington soon."

Three of the five prospects Fitt mentioned along with Cole, (Robbie Ray in Detroit, Nathan Karns in Tampa Bay, and Steven Souza in D.C.) spent time in the majors in 2014. Could Cole make the jump this season? A strong run in Spring Training, strong start at Triple-A or maybe an injury or trade could open up a spot. Is the "next big thing" ready?