A.J. Cole, 22, was the second-highest ranked right-hander and the no.2 prospect overall, behind only Lucas Giolito in the Washington Nationals' system according to Baseball America, after a strong 2013 campaign back in the Nats' system which followed a tough year in the minors for the Oakland A's in 2012. Cole was traded to the Athletics in late-2011 as part of the package that brought Gio Gonzalez to the nation's capital, then reacquired by the Nationals last winter in the three-team Michael Morse deal with the A's and Seattle Mariners.
D.C. GM Mike Rizzo told reporters after he got the Nats' 2010 4th Round pick back, that he didn't worry too much about Cole's struggles in Oakland's system.
"His developmental curve is on track," Rizzo said, "and we're going to get him with our pitching people and kind of straighten out his delivery and I think that this guy will be a quick mover for us from this point forward."
Cole put up a 4.25 ERA and a 3.54 FIP with 23 walks (2.13 BB/9) and 102 Ks (9.43 K/9) in 18 starts and 97 1/3 IP for the High-A Potomac Nationals last season, then moved up to the Double-A Harrisburg Senators, where he was (4-2) with a 2.18 ERA, 2.56 FIP, 10 walks (1.99 BB/9) and 49 Ks (9.73 K/9) in seven starts and 45 1/3 IP.
Cole was one of 18 non-roster invitees to Spring Training with the Nationals this year and new Nats' skipper Matt Williams was impressed with what he saw from the 6'4'' righty early this spring. "The ball just comes out of his hand really well," Williams said. "It just does. He's a little crossfire. Which is good. He's got, 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. I like it."
"I think what we want to do is we want to continue to develop," Williams said while discussing what lies ahead for Cole and the other Nats' prospects in camp this spring who probably won't make the rotation at the start in 2014. "So, that takes on a lot of meanings," Williams continued. "You look at last year and you say, 'Well, did anybody anticipate Taylor Jordan being here or Tanner Roark being here?' You know... you don't know. So what we want to do is make sure that they're ready in case something happens. We don't anticipate anything happening, but you don't know. So that's the process now of making sure. So, do I see him in the fifth spot? Don't know yet. I don't know yet. And that's just being perfectly honest. But I like his stuff, I really do."
Nationals' Asst. GM and VP of Player Development Doug Harris too talked about Cole in an MLB Network Radio interview this morning, telling "Power Alley" hosts Jim Duquette and Mike Ferrin that the right-hander has a big year ahead of him. "He's in a really good place," Harris said. "Literally just spoke to him about 15 minutes ago. He's very comfortable in his first major league camp. As with any young player he's doing a really nice job of soaking up his surroundings and tapping into the veterans and any knowledge that they would bestow upon him."
As for what changed when he came back to the Nationals' organization, Harris said they just made a few adjustments that got Cole back on track.
"When he came back to us we did a few mechanical things with him to get him to a place where we felt we could maximize his skills," Harris explained. "Very hard worker and the second-half of last year was very special for him."
Cole got a $2M signing bonus from Washington when he was drafted. Will 2014 be the year the Nationals' investment in the right-hander, who fell to the 4th Round because of a commitment to the University of Miami, pays off in Cole contributing at the major league level?